You’ve got a co-worker who, to put it diplomatically, has a hard time keeping their leadership tendencies in check. To tell it like it is: He treats you like he’s the boss. He provides tons of constructive feedback (even when you didn’t ask for it), divides up roles on team projects (giving himself the best one), and quashes any opportunity for others to have a say.
This can go from an annoyance to a prevalent problem when your boss doesn’t step in. Maybe she’s too busy to stay apprised of team dynamics, maybe the department is understaffed and she’s happy for someone to step up and take on a larger role, or maybe she’s hearing how things are going directly from him—and has no idea he’s steamrolling people left and right.
While it’s super-frustrating to deal with a bossy co-worker day in and day out, there are steps you can take to address the situation.
Start with these four tactics:
1. Speak Up in the Moment
Your colleague has just taken charge and relegated you to a boring task again, and you’re really upset about it. But, would she (apart from the ability to mind read) know that?
Not everyone who takes charge does it maliciously. If the team okays her ideas—or doesn’t say anything at all—how’s she to know that people are actually seething?
So, step one is speaking up. She may not realize how aggressive “Here’s what we’re going to do…” sounds.
Practice saying things like, “I have an idea for a different approach…” and “I’d like to take a more active role in the direction of this project. How about if…”
Maybe she’ll do a decent job at sharing leadership roles, it’s just that no one had previously expressed interest. Your first step is to give her a chance to do just that.
2. Schedule a Chat
Maybe you skimmed over the “raise your voice” advice thinking, “Been there. Tried that.” Or, you’re reading this after you’ve been blindsided by your colleague popping by your desk or replying all with (negative) feedback on how you draft emails.
So, offering your thoughts in the moment isn’t the right option for you.
In this case, you’re going to want to schedule a talk with him. As you know, emails can be misconstrued—especially when they’re on delicate topics—so this is definitely worth saying in person.
Avoid “you” statements (“You were wrong because…”) as it’ll likely just make him defensive. Instead try something like, “I appreciate you taking the time to you share your best practices with me. However, I’ve found success with [whatever it may be]. If I hit a roadblock, I’ll be sure to reach out to the team for suggestions.”
You opened with a dash of “kill them with kindness” and then clarified two key things: that you’ll drive the discussion if you’re seeking feedback, and that he’s an equal member of your team (that consists of others with valuable ideas, too).
3. Nominate Co-workers
Not everyone’s comfortable making the jump from saying nothing to advocating for themselves. An intermediate step is elevating someone else on your team—which is an equally effective tactic to make sure decisions are distributed more fairly.
Try using the tactic women used in President Obama’s White House to combat gender bias in meetings. If your bossy co-worker shouts down an idea from someone else, raise your voice in support of it—and call out the original speaker. This will make it clear that there are multiple voices around the table worth listening to.
4. Go to Your Boss
Remember when I said there’s a good chance your manager’s unaware of the problem? If you’ve tried doing all of the above and none of it has worked, it’s time to go to your boss. (The other benefit of making this step four is that you’ll be able to tell your manager that, yes, you have spoken to the person in question and tried to solve the problem before bringing it to her.)
The best way to broach the topic is not to throw your colleague under the bus, which could make you sound like you’re coming from a place of competition or jealousy. (Think “Greg acts like he’s more senior than us.”)
Instead, talk to your supervisor about your opportunities for growth and professional development—which is totally par for the course. You could say, “I’d like to take the lead on more projects: What steps could I take?” That way, your boss knows your co-worker isn’t the only person interested in these opportunities.
Another approach would be to say, “I’d like to make more substantive contributions, but I often feel there isn’t space for my opinion in meetings. Do you have any suggestions for how I might take a more active role?” This should open the door to discussing why you feel that way, and how you can remedy it.
Either way, you’ve alerted your boss to the fact that the current team dynamic’s keeping you from being impactful. And at this point, you’ll at least know you’ve tried your best to remedy the problem.
If you’ve spoken to your difficult teammate (twice!), elevated your other co-workers, and asked your boss for a larger role and nothing’s changed, then—if we’re being honest—the team dynamic is likely to stay as-is.
Assuming you’re not looking to quit, rather than fighting an uphill battle, find other ways to get your voice heard in the office. Spearhead more solo projects, collaborate with people in different departments, or get involved with groups not related directly to your job, such as a book club. By choosing to create opportunities for yourself, you’re showing your boss—as well as other people in leadership positions—that your voice deserves to be heard, and by not letting that happen, they’re missing out on a lot of great ideas.