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How To Push Back On A Pushy Colleague


You’ve probably had that coworker who treats you like a subordinate – even though they’re actually a peer. Use these strategies to clap back at pushy people and be your own best self-advocate.




As a young management consultant, I remember attending regular meetings with a peer of mine named Dave. We were at the same level in our organization, both helping our corporate clients try to overcome their employee engagement issues. And yet, particularly in front of our clients, Dave would consistently act like he was my boss. He’d offer for me to do the “office housework” jobs like scheduling meetings and taking notes, (something women of color are more likely to be asked to do) and he’d nominate himself to do the high stakes client presentations. Without fail, I’d end up leaving those meetings feeling worse about myself - and I’d stew on my irritation toward Dave for weeks.


You’ve probably had that coworker who treats you like a subordinate – even though they’re actually a peer. In their drive to plump up their own status, they flex their power, usually knocking you down a rung. They likely interrupt you, minimize your role, and bellow orders.

Makes you want to cringe, doesn’t it?


While having a pushy colleague may sound like a simple annoyance to some, 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 that positive relationships. These difficult, energy-sucking associations, the research authors found, can result “in blocked opportunities, decreased motivation, and even organizational isolation.” The consequences of which lower an employee’s levels of thriving and performance, and increase the likelihood of exit.


Maybe you work with a “Dave” of your own. If so, don’t worry – there are ways you can handle it so you don’t have to steep in your anger. Here are four strategies to clap back at pushy people 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. At the same time though, they need to know if you are being pulled in enough different directions that your high priority work can’t get done. So, proactively contract with your boss that they’ll provide cover. Tell them you get asked to work on non-critical work from time to time and that you’ll check in with them when it’s “on the line.” Ask them 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. So, have a few friendly but firm retorts ready for your pushy 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 an agreement - with yourself – that you won’t say yes to a drive-by request. 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 are, thus creating added pressure to say “yes” to requests.


Bring your sense of humor:

Humor has a special way of disarming even the most explosive verbal grenade. So why not consider taming your power-hungry colleague with something they’re probably not expecting: some 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 retorts).


Redirect them elsewhere:

You can respect your own time, education and level of experience by forwarding a pushy colleague somewhere else. Particularly if they are asking you to take on lowly work or work that’s not in your area – 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 or pushy colleague sucks. But try to externalize the dynamic somewhat. Realize pushy people’s behavior usually isn’t personally or exclusively directed at you. After all, you might remind the person of their pesky younger sibling they have a fraught relationship with. Or - maybe you’re simply standing in their eye line when they’re bombarding loads of people, mid-power trip.


Thanks to your pushy coworker, you’re likely gaining and learning from how *not* to be a teammate or colleague. And if you’re a woman, you’re combatting the BS that says it’s better to settle and not make waves, than to set clear, no-bones-about-it 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. So, consider this your invitation to push back against persistent mistreatment.


Push back often to own your career. Push back to own your life.

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