How to Push Back on a Pushy Coworker
Bossy colleagues can have a negative impact on your work performance, research shows. Here are four ways to get them in check.
As a young management consultant, I remember attending regular meetings with a colleague named Dave. We were at the same level in our organization, both helping our corporate clients work through employee engagement issues. Yet, particularly in front of our clients, Dave would consistently act like he was my boss. He’d suggest that I do the “office housework,” jobs like scheduling and note taking — something women of color are more likely to be asked to do — while he nominated himself for high stakes client presentations. Without fail, I’d end up leaving those meetings feeling worse about myself, stewing in irritation toward Dave for weeks.
Like me, you’ve probably had that coworker who treats you like a subordinate though you’re actually a peer. In their drive to pump up their own status, they flex their power, usually knocking you down a rung. They likely interrupt you, minimize your role, and bellow orders.
Having a pushy colleague may sound like a simple annoyance to some, but negative coworker interactions color our perceptions of work more than we think.
A study conducted by Georgetown University and Grenoble École de Management in France found that de-energizing work relationships actually have far more influence on us than positive relationships. Difficult, energy-sucking associations, the study’s authors found, can result in “blocked opportunities, decreased motivation, and even organizational isolation.” These factors lower an employee’s levels of success and performance, and increase the likelihood of exit.
If you work with a Dave of your own, don’t worry — there are ways to address the situation. Here are four strategies you can implement to clap back at pushy colleagues and be your own best self-advocate:
Get some air cover
Most managers expect that as a professional you should be able to manage your time on your own. However, your manager should be aware of when you are being pulled in different directions, preventing you completing high-priority work. So, proactively contract with your boss that they’ll provide cover. Inform your boss that you occasionally get asked to work on non-critical work and that you’ll check in with them when it’s “on the line.” Ask your boss to back you up and provide confirmation if and when you say “no” to a task. If your boss supports the boundary you’ve created, you have a much better chance of overcoming pushback from your colleague.
Prepare some comebacks
Most of us don’t do our best thinking on our feet, particularly if we’re angry or frustrated. It therefore helps to have a few friendly but firm retorts ready for that overbearing colleague. When they say, “Here’s how we’re going to divvy up the work,” you can come back with, “That’s one way to do it. I recommend we…” Similarly, if they sign you up for a new initiative you don’t want to be part of say, “That’s an interesting project. I’m not sure it’s realistic with my workload though” or “Hmmm, let me talk to my manager about it.” Make the decision to reject drive-by requests. That way, you can buy more time to think it through and not give a “yes” that you’ll regret later. This is especially important for women who, according to research, are expected to be more agreeable than men.
Bring your sense of humor
Humor has a special way of disarming even the most explosive verbal grenade. Consider taming your power-hungry colleague with something they’re probably not expecting: levity. In my workshops on negotiation, I teach people that humor can be the ultimate power leveler. After all, the calmer individual in a two-person scenario is almost always seen as the most rational. This doesn’t mean that you laugh off or negate the seriousness of the situation. Instead, it’s a chance to acknowledge an absurdity without charging at, or even gutting, the other person.
When they recommend you do the tedious work for the fourth time in a row, you could say, “Did I sign up for the grunt work and somehow forget? Thanks anyway, I’ll take a hard pass” or “My answer is “no,” that is, if it’s okay with you.” Check out Ishoudhavesaid.net for more inspiration on these kinds of retorts.
Redirect them somewhere else
You can respect your own time, education and level of experience by forwarding a pushy colleague elsewhere. If they are asking you to take on lowly work or work that’s not in your area of expertise, you can say, “Let me steer you to someone who knows more about that.”
Another approach that works is to say “no” to an unwanted task like scheduling the team dinner and then offer a “yes” to something you do want to work on, like creating the results report that will go to a client. Flipping no to yes shows you don’t just say no without a reason. It also demonstrates your care for your team’s results and that you’re truly happy to contribute—where it makes sense.
Having your self-esteem chipped away by a domineering colleague is never ideal. Try to externalize the dynamic and realize that their behavior usually isn’t personally or exclusively directed at you. And thanks to your overbearing coworker, you’re likely learning how not to be a teammate. And if you’re a woman, you’re combatting the misinformation that says it’s better to settle and not make waves, than to set clear limits. It’ll cement your reputation as someone who respects their own time, is thoughtful and reliable, and is looking for ways to add real value. Consider this your invitation to push back against persistent mistreatment.