They critique your work. They delegate responsibility. They talk over you in meetings.
They’re the coworker who acts like your boss—and they’re far too common in today’s workplace. Some mean well and genuinely want to move projects forward. Others are downright bullies.
“Sometimes they’re making themselves look better. Sometimes it’s their own anxiety or need to control. They’re not comfortable in a grey area and if the boss is leaving a leadership vacuum, they take it upon themselves to create structure,” said Ilene Marcus, a workplace expert who mentors on boss-subordinate dynamics and wrote a book called Managing Annoying People.
Gone unchecked, bossy peers can be a major hindrance to an organization. It can make some employees feel inferior or trapped. In fact, negative interactions at work have far more influence than positive ones, according to a study by Georgetown professor Christine Porath and Alexandra Gerbasi and Andrew Parker from Grenoble École de Management in France. They found that just one negative interaction has four to seven times the influence of a positive interaction. That leads to less information sharing, low motivation and decreased performance.
“Uncivil or de-energizing relationships at work are extremely costly to you, your team and organization,” said Porath. “These relationships have a way of infecting others and their productivity as well.”
If you’re bothered by a bossy coworker, ask yourself why. Are you upset they’re taking charge because you want to take charge yourself? Are you mad that it’s making them—not you—look impressive to upper management? Or are you just genuinely upset that your decision-making ability is being usurped and you don’t like how they’re talking to you? If it’s the latter—you’ve got reason to gripe.
Whatever your motivation, these 10 strategies can help you deal with bossy coworkers and help you reclaim your decision-making power (and happiness) at work.
Ask why they’re acting like the boss. You want to clarify that you are, indeed, peers. But you don’t want to come off like a crybaby. So posing a basic question to them is a good start: Is there a reason you’re acting like the boss? “Just ask the question,” said Marcus. “Maybe they don’t even know they’re doing it.”
Get coffee or drinks together. Maybe they just simply don’t trust you to do a good job. So get to know them a bit more. Grab some coffee together. Go out for a few beers. Eat lunch together. You’ll be shocked by how much one-on-one time can strengthen your relationship.
Use reflective listening. When they say “you’re going to see client A on Tuesday” just repeat that back to them with a little twist: “so you’re telling me that I’m going to see client A on Tuesday?” Play that game a little and “they will start to realize you don’t want to be told,” said Marcus. “They may not hear themselves. When you use reflective listening, they understand they’re being bossy.”
Use “you” statements. You may have learned to use “I” statements to communicate with your manager. For example: “I feel like I’m being treated poorly” or “I feel like my ideas aren’t being considered.” When you’re equals, “you” statements perform much better. Say things like: “Why do YOU feel like you’re in charge of this project?” “Why are YOU talking to me like that?”
Invite them to lead a project with you. Explain to your bossy peer that you don’t perform best when being told what to do. Explain that you’re both looking for the same positive result—and offer to lead a project together.
Bring them back to the common goal. Let’s say you’re updating your company website. A good way to communicate that you’re not feeling their bossy vibe is to say: “we’re all here to make the website as great as possible, but I’m not feeling that motivated if you’re telling me what to do.” That can help show them you’re looking for a more collaborative approach. “Sometimes it’s a style thing and they don’t realize it unless they’re getting specific feedback,” said Julie Jansen, speaker, coach and author of I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Gratifying Work.
Find other coworkers they’re bossing around. If they’re bossing you around, chances are they’re doing it to other people too. So ask around. “Hey, is Larry giving you assignments too?” That can help you gain valuable input to get your independence back.
Find a coworker they don’t boss around and have them coach you. They’re likely not bossy with everyone. Is there’s someone else that seems to handle this bossy coworker well, ask them for some advice.
Go to the actual boss. Ask the person who’s actually in charge for clarification on roles and responsibilities. Tell them “Larry doled out the assignments. Is this what you expected?” and see what the reaction may be.
Stop beating around the bush. At some point, you’ve got to be direct. Saying things like “did you hear how you just spoke to me?” or “why are you barking orders at me?” can help bring the problem to the forefront—and hopefully you can lead a constructive discussion afterwards. “Unfortunately, I don’t think people do that,” said Jansen. “They just get upset or defensive, go behind person’s back and complain about it. Or they wait until a boiling point and snap.”