Not Sure How to Push Back Against Work that Isn’t Yours? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work on a team that has had a lot of turnover in the last couple of years. Although our company is very big, over time I have learned who to call to get things done. I am now considered our team’s “answer lady.”

The situation has slowly morphed into people asking me to forward their email instead of taking the next step themselves. I now spend time taking care of a lot of tasks that aren’t mine. In addition, my boss has had a lot going on in her personal life, so I frequently fill in for her.

I recently realized a lot of small things have added up to me doing so much more than I think is fair, and I am starting to get annoyed. How do I push back when my co-workers try to fob their work off on me? And how do I tell my boss I can’t fill in as much as she’d like? I have my own personal life to attend to, after all.

Answer Lady 


Dear Answer Lady,

How do you push back? How do you tell your boss enough is enough?

Directly, clearly, and kindly, but firmly. That’s how.

You are training your co-workers to believe you will take care of things they don’t know how (or want) to do. You are training your boss to believe you can do your job and hers, too. So cut it out.

I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming you—I’m not. This happens to most people whose first impulse is to be helpful until they realize they have created a problem for themselves. The problem is if you send the message that it is okay for someone to do something, they will keep doing it for as long as you allow it. So you must stop allowing it.

This might be uncomfortable and challenging at first because you have to set new expectations and retrain people, which will be inconvenient for them. You may even find that some folks get upset—but remember, the only people who get upset with you for setting boundaries are the people who benefit from your not having them. If you shy away from conflict, which I suspect is the case, this will certainly be unpleasant. But a moment of unpleasantness in exchange for not being annoyed all the time is worth it.

Next time a co-worker assumes you will take the next steps, clearly state who they should speak with and ask them to let you know how things work out. Do not volunteer to take over, forward an email, or get involved. Just stop taking on other people’s work.

As for your boss, I think it is fair for you to have a conversation with her. You can share that you wanted to help out because you know she has been having a rough time, but your workload is becoming unmanageable. Be prepared with a list of what you think makes sense for you to continue to do on her behalf until things settle down for her, and a list of activities you feel are way beyond your job scope.

This is, of course, unless you want to ask for a promotion and a raise. If you think it makes sense, you can certainly prepare to do that. You might want to rehearse with a friend how to frame your request so that you have a clean, concise approach. Something along the lines of “I understand you need coverage, and I wonder if it would make sense for you to deputize me for the duration? It might mean changing my title and possibly a bump in pay.” Avoid complaining. Instead, point out the reality and share some proposed solutions. Be kind but clear. The more you can keep feelings and emotions out of it, the easier the conversation will be for both of you.

The beauty of putting some time into practicing setting boundaries is that people often will sense the shift in you and stop asking you to do things they shouldn’t ask you to do. I am not quite sure how this happens, but I have experienced it myself and seen it happen for countless clients. But it doesn’t always. You still need to be ready to draw a line in the sand.

Start today. Stand up for yourself before you get so annoyed you say something you regret. It’s much better to strike while the iron is cold and say what needs to be said before you get heated up.

There is helping out in a pinch, and then there is letting people take advantage of you—which will continue to happen until you put up the hand.

Good luck!

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

Follow on Twitter More Content by Madeleine Homan Blanchard
Previous Resource
5 Critical Components for Creating an Inclusive Employee Experience
5 Critical Components for Creating an Inclusive Employee Experience

Creating an inclusive employee experience requires a comprehensive approach that spans recruitment, onboard...

Next Resource
Too Good a Listener? Ask Madeleine
Too Good a Listener? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine, I had a big job and got a lot of manager training early in my working life. Then a series o...