my over-eager coworker takes over my work and is running roughshod over me

A reader writes:

I was hired to my company about four months ago and I’m already struggling on how to deal with my over-eager teammate, Jon.

Some background: I was told during the hiring process that the company expected to hire two specialists, one of which would take the job of an employee who was failing their PIP. Turns out, Jon was that employee and he managed to turn his work around in the final hour, passed his PIP and was kept on (I was given the second specialist spot). To my knowledge, Jon has no idea that I was initially hired to take his job.

Jon is just inherently a super friendly guy and, before we went remote under our state’s stay-at-home order, he was frequently at my desk get to know me or offer advice. There were a couple of incidences early on where I felt he was checking in on me more than he needed to – coming to my desk to question something I wrote in an email, remarking how late I stayed or if I logged in after hours, interrupting my training sessions with our boss for unimportant, non-work reasons etc. It was annoying but I assumed he would relax a bit once we were all settled in.

Unfortunately, a couple months later (and while we were all working remotely), we found out that our boss Dany had fired the third specialist on our team for “not being proactive enough.”

Since then, I feel like Jon’s behavior has gotten even worse. Jon inserts himself into everything. He is the first to volunteer for new projects, even the few simple ones that I could take on with my limited training. When I do have to ask his advice on how to handle a particular problem, he accesses my files to solve it for me. When I set up a project for myself to work on, I’ll come back to see he has completed it. And when Dany sends out any email to the two of us, Jon is the first to respond and bombards the thread with multiple messages with new ideas, examples etc. Even in our team calls, Jon talks over me and has even explained my own ideas back to me as his own.

None of these things are horrible on their own but, taken together, it’s exhausting. Just now, a company director sent our team an update about one of our projects but failed to specify which one. The project was mine and I recognized the info instantly so I sent my team a quick email, letting them know I would take care of it. In response, Jon told me he had already emailed the director with questions but was happy to see my “nice thinking!”

Frequently, I feel angry at myself for not being faster or knowing more, even when I feel like Jon is going way overboard. I feel like he’s doing whatever he can to prove himself. And, for what it’s worth, I totally feel pressure too! It’s actually pretty scary to work a new job where your only teammates were about to be fired or were fired during a global pandemic with widespread job insecurity! While I have had overall good reviews so far, it’s been really hard to learn the job remotely and I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Despite my efforts to be patient with myself, I feel like I’m competing against RoboCop.

I know it’s not Jon’s job to slow down for my benefit and the company probably loves to see the effort he is putting in. So, what can I do to deal with this?

I actually wouldn’t assume your company loves this. Maybe they do, but this type of behavior can be just as annoying to a manager as it is to coworkers.

But it’s a pretty safe assumption that Jon’s behavior is a reaction to his PIP and near job loss, plus the other specialist being fired for not being proactive enough. Jon seems determined to ensure no one will be able to say that about him.

And that’s fine! He can go overboard on proactivity if he wants, and that’s between him and his manager — except for where he’s treading on your toes, which he’s doing a lot of.

If you haven’t directly told him to stop yet, you’ve got to do that — and it’s possible that will solve most of this. Specifically:

* When he completes a project that yours, address that with him! That’s a huge overstep and you can tell him so. Say, “I set this up for myself and came back to see that you had completed it. Why did you do that?” and, “I don’t want you taking over my work. Please don’t work on my projects without talking to me first. You won’t have all the context, and frankly it makes me look really bad. I don’t know if you realized that.”

* When he talks over you on team calls, say, “I’d like to finish what I was saying” and “You’re interrupting me — please let me finish.” (Most people will be shamed into backing off if you say that, at least for that call. You may need to say it again on the next one.)

* When he offers your ideas as his own, say this; “Yes, that is what I was just suggesting” or “Let me jump in here since I’d proposed the idea originally. My thinking on this is…” (More suggestions for language are here and here.)

* Stop asking for his advice if you can at all avoid it. If you can’t avoid it, then explicitly say, “In the past when I’ve asked for your advice on this kind of thing, you’ve gone into my files and solved it for me. I want to be clear that I don’t not want you to do that again. I will be resolving this myself. What I’m asking you about is ____.”

* If he jumps into email conversations about your projects, be assertive about taking them back: “This is a project I’m already working on, so I’m going to take the lead here.” And if he has already emailed a third party about it: “I’ll let Jane know to disregard the email you sent since I’m the lead on this.”

* Tell Dany that you’re interested in taking on new projects but Jon tends to volunteer for them before you have a chance, and ask if she’d be willing to assign some directly to you.

It might also make sense to talk to Jon about the pattern you’re seeing — as in, “You’re putting so much energy into covering things that you’re taking over my work and making me look less capable. Can you please be more careful about leaving my projects to me?”

It’s possible that if you point out that he’s stepping on your toes, he’ll back off. It’s also possible that he knows this makes you look bad and he’s settled on that as a job security strategy — but it’s more likely that he’s just pushing as much as he can because he hasn’t been called out on it, and that when you push back, he’ll rein it in. But if he is doing it on purpose and with full knowledge of its impact on you, that conversation will make that clearer to you, and you’ll know it’s extra important for to you to be vigorous about asserting yourself.

Right now, though, it sounds like you haven’t really pushed back much at all. Do that, and you’ll have a much better idea of how much energy this guy will take to work near.

my over-eager coworker takes over my work and is running roughshod over me was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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