Defined roles are key for success at work. That’s why they exist in every workplace. But what do you do when a coworker crosses the line into your role? How do you set boundaries to protect your job without burning bridges?
Boundary-crossing at work can take several forms. The coworker may work behind the scenes to achieve a more active decision-making role in your projects, such as a marketing manager who goes to colleagues and even other departments to weigh in on a sales manager’s projects, as if the marketing manager has authority. This may even work for a short period of time when the roles are in fact slightly blurry, as they can be between marketing and sales.
Or, a colleague may involve your boss, suggesting a project or direction in an area that is rightly your purview. They may frame a casual comment such as “okay if I run with it?” around the suggestion to give themselves an imprimatur of authority. In another direction, a colleague may involve support staff, giving them instructions (when you aren’t physically present, of course) on projects and areas that are rightfully yours if the chain of command is followed.
A colleague may simply speak to you in staff meetings or conversations as if they hold authority over you, or casually throw out suggestions or even commands that are in your purview.
Finally, a colleague in fluid or loosely managed companies may not just try to do your job, they may actually intercept projects and do them.
These oversteps may be unconscious, or they may be on purpose, but either way it’s incumbent upon you to establish clear boundaries. So what’s the proper way to handle a colleague crossing the line in any of these areas? Here are the best steps to take.
Calmly reiterate the proper lines of authority.
If you find a colleague has been initiating projects rightfully yours or crossing lines by acting as if they have authority they don’t, reiterate the proper lines of authority in a diplomatic and calm way. A comment such as “I’ll make the decision on the best communications channels for salespeople after discussion with them, just as I always do” should make it clear that the authority stems from you.
Another avenue is to directly ask where their authority comes from, such as “the CEO and I discussed sales goals and their chief drivers last week. Is this new input from marketing?”
Talk to your boss.
It’s important to discuss these incidents with your boss, for several reasons. First (and most importantly), if lines of authority have become blurred in the minds of other folks in the company (or even clients), a boss can firm up the boundaries by making it clear who has the authority for areas and projects.
Unclear authority and projects initiated or going forward without proper chains of command can be a headache for bosses. Give your boss the chance to stop it to make life easier for everyone concerned.
Second, your boss may have responded positively to a coworker’s “mind if I run with it?” because they genuinely didn’t realize the end result would encroach upon your authority. If something like this occurred, they can set it straight by clarifying the lines of authority.
Third, your boss may be unaware of incipient or growing rivalry between their teams. They need to be in the loop to dampen unhealthy rivalry down.
Talk to your colleagues, but don’t gossip.
Coworkers who try to grab authority from others may try to grab authority from several people. At a minimum, a coworker who speaks as if they have authority they don’t possess is likely to have done it to more than one person!
Ask your colleagues for advice. Did they try any strategies or responses that were particularly effective?
Talking to your colleagues will also informally publicize the power grab – which will make it harder for the offending coworker to move forward with it. People may go along with boundary-crossing moves when they’re not clear about the end game, but once they know the score, they are far less likely to be a chess piece in your offending coworker’s game.
Fix communication disruptions.
Sometimes boundary crossing takes place by disrupting your place in the communication chain. You may find out about changes to a project under your authority almost by accident, when everyone else has received an e-mail about it, or something close to it. Or the opposite may happen, you may start receiving e-mails from teams in where you have no authority, in an attempt to blur perceptions about what exactly you’re responsible for.
Response quickly to these. Ask to be put on e-mail lists and other communication channels (or taken off), as appropriate.
Ignore smoke and mirrors.
Use these steps above to stop any attempts by a colleague to cross boundaries of your authority, your projects, and your team.
But focus on solving actual attempts only. If you and your boss jointly determine that these attempts are smoke and mirrors – all puffery and no real effect – ignore any attempts the coworker makes to draw you in.
This kind of coworker can try to argue with you directly about issues that are none of their concern or make comments and suggestions about areas in which they are not entitled to give feedback. Never be drawn into those attempts. You don’t want to solidify any attempts to horn in. Be polite and neutral. A simple “I’ll take your comments under advisement” is the most you should do.
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