How to react when a colleague encroaches on your work

Jun 01, 2020

5 mins

How to react when a colleague encroaches on your work
Marianne Shehadeh

Créatrice de contenus @ Point Virgule

All you wanted was to do your job well, to have a good working relationship with everyone in the office, and to take part in company life. But nothing’s been the same since you noticed that a colleague has been muscling in on your projects.

This individual has gradually been taking over your tasks, which is rather unnerving. They’re contacting clients about subjects that you usually manage, organizing meetings in your place, making decisions without consulting you on projects you’re responsible for, interfering in email exchanges, and giving unsolicited opinions. In short, it’s too much. You’re finding it hard to understand and to stay calm. Why is your colleague doing this? More importantly, how do you fix it without getting yourself in trouble? Here are some tips on how to approach this issue calmly and put an end to what you’ve come to see as “project theft”.

A delicate situation

We get it. Finding out that a colleague is encroaching on your work is never fun. The situation might stir up unpleasant feelings: a loss of self-confidence, feelings of failure and lack of legitimacy, anger and confusion. Beyond personal emotions, this kind of situation can also create tension and lead to large-scale conflict. For the sake of all employees, and for the company to run smoothly, it’s in your best interest to maintain good working relationships with colleagues. So let’s look at how to deal with this sensitive situation.

1. Try to understand why your colleague is stepping on your toes

You’re wondering how it came to this. This may be key to resolving this tricky situation:try to understand why your colleague is acting in this way by confronting them with their own behavior. This will help you to take a step back from the situation and calmly discuss it with them. To analyze the facts. To do this, ask yourself the right questions about your colleague, and also about yourself as well:

  • Are they new in the company? Perhaps they don’t fully understand the scope of their job?
  • Is your job description sufficiently well-defined? What’s theirs?
  • Does this colleague just want to help you? Does it come across like you need help with certain projects?
  • Do they feel they can work better or faster than you?
  • What’s in it for them? Is it to take credit for your work in the eyes of your boss?
  • Was it really this individual who decided to encroach on your work or did they receive instructions to do so?

As with any problematic situation, identify the source of dysfunction to find the solution. It’s only after doing this that you’ll be able to work out a strategy.

2. Keep your emotions at bay

Before you bring up the subject, try to take a step back and don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Whether your ego is bruised, or you feel cornered or angry, put your feelings aside as much as possible so you can remain factual and lucid about what’s going on. Don’t complain straight away, you could come across as a whinger. The trick is to detach yourself from any feelings that could distort the message you’re trying to send.

Sandrine, an occupational psychologist, confirms this. “Keep your emotions at bay. If you get angry, it’ll come across like you’re an angry person. This won’t look good and you won’t get what you want in the end,” she said. Even if you confront the colleague in question directly, avoid taking all your frustration and annoyance out on them—this is counterproductive. “If your voice remains calm, you will keep the attention as well as the respect of the person you’re speaking to.” That really is all there is to it.

3. Avoid venting to colleagues

Unless you have some real, trusted work allies, avoid spilling your guts about what’s on your mind. Such a delicate situation could be perceived in a thousand different ways and involve, in one way or another, colleagues who are otherwise unaffected. What you say could also be taken the wrong way and by the wrong people. Do you know the children’s game Chinese whispers? Well, this is the same. You run the risk of having your words distorted as everyone comes up with their own interpretations. This might backfire: you could come under criticism for slyly damaging the reputation of a colleague rather than speaking to the parties involved or those with the power to do something about it.

4. Start a dialogue with your colleague

Once you’ve taken all these precautions, you can begin to discuss the matter with the colleague muscling in on your work. If confronting this person makes you uncomfortable—especially if you feel it could cause conflict—draw inspiration from the DESC method. It’s mainly used in management but it can also be useful for resolving conflicts between colleagues.

Here’s the four-step method:

  • Describe the facts objectively. For example, “I’ve noticed that some of your projects are within my scope/job description.”
  • Express how you feel about this situation. “It makes me question things/this upsets me.”
  • Specify their ideal outcome.“What do you think?/What is your position on this?”
  • Conclude in a positive manner. “It’s good that we were able to talk.”

Upon discussing the matter with your colleague, you may discover that they hadn’t realized their mistake and are willing to correct it. Or, by defending your point of view, you may find that your job descriptions are similar or poorly defined. You might even find common ground, who knows? Why not consider collaborating with them? This could relieve you of certain tasks and boost the common project. After all, if there are more people, more gets done. The worst-case scenario? You’ll come across someone who refuses to acknowledge the problem, and you’ll then know that you need to ask your manager or senior management to help solve the problem.

5. Alert your manager about the situation

If the conversation doesn’t improve anything—if your colleague keeps stepping on your toes or continues to encroach on your projects—make your manager aware of the problem. Keep a record of all your communication as a precaution, including emails, letters, and so on. First, plan your meeting in such a way as to highlight your position as well as your skills. You can use the contents of your job description as a starting point. This will help you remind your manager of your responsibilities, your role in the company, why you joined, and also what you’ve been doing since you started there. Next, explain the situation: always use facts and don’t get emotional or blame anyone. Finally, explain how this is affecting your efficiency, keeping the team from running smoothly or even affecting your well-being.

It is perfectly acceptable to ask your manager to clarify your job description or to see how it may interfere with someone else’s role. If the person encroaching on your projects is a member of your team, your manager can easily arrange a meeting where the three of you can find common ground and define the nature and scope of your individual projects. If you’re on different teams, then your managers can get together—with or without you—to find a solution. Ultimately, despite these discussions, the managers’ decisions might not be enough to resolve the conflict. If this is the case, unfortunately, you will have to take the matter to someone higher up in the chain of command.

Most importantly, don’t let the situation get to you and crush your self-confidence. Remember, you were recruited because the company believed in you and in your skills. Bear in mind the advice of occupational psychologist Sandrine, and don’t take these behaviors, which can affect your ego or your mood, too personally. Learn how to manage your emotions and reactions with basic tools such as meditation, breathing exercises, and self-persuasion. It’s vital to be aware of what you are worth, and of your position within your team and your company. This will help you put things right—and do so with integrity, benevolence, and determination.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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