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When a peer offloads work to you

(February 20, 2024 Newsletter)

What do the following situations have in common?

Scenario 1: It starts out as a little request – “hey, can you send me X file? I can’t find it.” You pop it over to them. It was just a minute of time for you, albeit a distraction from whatever you were doing when the notification popped up with the question.

Next thing you know, the colleague has come to rely on you for all kinds of bigger and more time consuming tasks and you start to wonder… is this person treating me like I work for them? Or is it just in my head? How do I get out of this pattern?

Scenario 2:

A colleague is working on a big project that overlaps with the function you oversee. She’s the clear owner and you’ve been happy to give input on relevant parts. But as the project progresses, she’s asking you to do important chunks of it with last-minute deadlines, none of which were communicated to you in advance. You start to wonder, do I have a say in this or am I supposed to just be agreeing and clearing my schedule to help out?

There are some similarities, from the perspective of the person experiencing these scenarios…

  • A desire to be a helpful, friendly team player

  • Lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities

  • Challenges with setting expectations and boundaries

  • Shying away from confrontation

  • Feeling like one is reneging on an implicit promise

Sound familiar to you? Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself or maybe you’ve supervised someone who’s brought such a challenge to you.

Start with some digging: Here are a few coaching questions for your consideration before we dive into practical steps:

  1. How would you define being a top-notch team player? What assumptions are you making in that default definition? What’s missing?

  2. If you could be friendly AND set clearer boundaries, what would that look like for you?

  3. What tradeoffs are you making by either sticking with the status quo or raising the issue with your coworker?

  4. What are you curious to ask your colleague? (And if you haven’t asked them yet, what’s stopping you?)

In terms of best practices, consider the following:

  1. Try out “no” - If you prefer to address the situation indirectly, and you haven’t yet said no (just to see what would happen), give it a shot. The next time that person reaches out with a task that you don’t want to do or don’t have time to do, reply with a kind but firm “Sorry, I’m swamped this week and won’t have time to help” and, if relevant, add “I remember helping to answer a similar question before, so if you scroll back through our previous messages, you’ll find it and can work off of that, ok?”

  2. Set parameters - If you want to find a way to help but prefer to have more of a say in when, how, how much, etc. Try out one of the following: “I’d be happy to help but can’t get to it today – will Wednesday be ok?” “Before I say yes, I’d like to get a better understanding of the scope to make sure I can fully commit. Do you have 10 minutes for a call?”

  3. Get to the bottom of it - If it’s time to address it head-on, invite the person to a more in-depth conversation: “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve asked me to jump in on a bunch of recent projects and would love to align expectations about where and how our work overlaps. When can we get together to talk about this in the next few days?”

All that being said, be careful of:

  • Overly long and detailed written explanations. If it’s going to take more than a sentence or two, it’s probably better communicated as a call or meeting.

  • Being disingenuous. Don’t use phrases like “You know I’m always happy to help, but…” when you clearly aren’t always happy to help. Another no-no? “You know I’ll do anything for you, but…”

  • Accusing the person of mal-intent. You will get much more done in the conversation if you assume positive intent, emphasize that you have a role (you’ve said yes up until now, haven’t you?), and that clarity is mutually beneficial.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve experienced something like this and have successfully navigated re-establishing boundaries and expectations. If you try it out following this email, let me know how it went.

And of course, if this is giving you some good ideas but you’re still nervous about approaching your colleague, don’t hesitate to reach out for more help.


The Coaching Corner

The power of an inspirational quote

Over President’s Day weekend, my family and I had a long car ride and found ourselves at the Vince Lombardi rest stop on the NJ Turnpike. The walls are covered in inspirational quotes by the great Coach Lombardi. Here are three I wrote down:

  • “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

  • “Success is based upon a spiritual quality, a power to inspire others.”

  • “Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”

Which of these do you find most inspiring?

What quotes do you have hanging by your desk?



David Rock’s SCARF Model - The SCARF model, developed by David Rock, is an excellent tool for testing your assumptions about why a team member is acting defensively, disengaging, or otherwise displaying behaviors that don’t align with your expectations at work. The model outlines 5 social threats that drive our behavior - and can be used as a starting point for conversation to understand what’s really going on for the person under the surface.


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