How To Handle Coworkers Stepping on Your Toes at Work

Updated February 3, 2023

When working as part of a team, it's important for everyone to understand their own role and to be respectful of each person's contributions. When a coworker is stepping on your toes at work by assuming your duties without asking or giving you unnecessary work, it can be challenging to develop a positive working relationship. Learning how to communicate with your team and establish healthy limits can ensure that you have a positive team dynamic and set reasonable expectations for the future.

In this article, we explain what to do when someone at work is overlooking your professional boundaries and share tips for maintaining respectful relationships with your colleagues.

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What does "stepping on toes" mean?

The phrase "stepping on toes" refers to interfering with someone's responsibilities or causing frustration with your actions. In the workplace, stepping on someone's toes usually involves taking credit for a project or assuming authority over duties that belonged to another person. For example, consider a situation where your manager assigned you to all sales accounts in one city and gave your colleague all accounts in another city. If you came into work and discovered that your colleague answered a sales call from one of your residents instead of sending them to your voicemail, you may consider that to be unfair.

Every workplace and team dynamic has different expectations about what kinds of interactions are acceptable. Some teams regularly trade responsibilities and share credit for successes, while others have clearly defined roles and may not appreciate when people unexpectedly do tasks outside of their job description. Understanding the norms and culture of your team is important for being respectful and acknowledging everyone's contributions.

Why is it important to respect boundaries at work?

Respecting boundaries in the workplace is important because it provides everyone with the conditions they need to be successful in their position. Everyone has their own personal and professional boundaries for what makes them feel comfortable at work.

When people identify their expectations for how they want others to treat them at work, following those requests shows that you care about their well-being. Some of the benefits of being respectful to others on your team include:

  • Enhancing communication: When everyone is respectful of other people's work, they often feel more comfortable expressing themselves, resolving conflict and communicating with one another.

  • Improving morale: If people on a team consistently show respect to others, they create a pleasant environment where everyone feels happy to be at work.

  • Increasing growth opportunities: By offering respect to everyone on a team, they all have the opportunity to prove their skills, apply for promotions and grow within the company.

Related: How To Treat Others With Respect in the Workplace

How to address boundary issues in the workplace

Here are several steps you can take if you're in a situation where coworkers cross your boundaries or don't fully appreciate your contributions:

1. Consider the context

When you're having challenges with boundaries at work, it's important to understand the context. If you're having a problem with a specific coworker, you may use a different strategy than if the entire team has a culture of being competitive and seeking individual growth over team success.

You can also think about any past interactions you've had with a particular coworker. Reflect on your own actions and think about when your boundary issues with your coworker began. If you may have disrespected a coworker's boundaries in the past, it's possible that their current behavior is a reaction. A genuine conversation or apology may be the best way to resolve the issue.

2. Identify the type of behavior

Next, think about the type of boundaries that your coworker is having trouble with. An eager coworker may accidentally be too helpful with your projects and leave you with too few assignments. Another colleague may be excited to share their thoughts in a meeting and not realize that they're limiting the amount of time you have to speak.

Identifying the specific behavior that's bothering you can help you approach your coworker with a solution to solve the problem. It also gives you the chance to reflect on an appropriate boundary or expectation for how you want others to treat you at work. Write down the behavior, how it impacts you and what kind of change you want to see.

3. Advocate for yourself in the moment

Whenever possible, advocate for your well-being during interactions with your coworkers. This shows your colleague that you have a boundary and sets your expectation for future behavior. Being firm but polite shows that you care about them treating you with respect at work.

Consider a situation where a colleague constantly critiques your work on a graphic design project. The next time they approach you with unsolicited advice, tell them that you want to focus on your work and they can schedule a meeting if they want to discuss design strategies. If a colleague interrupts you, explain that you weren't finished speaking.

Related: 12 Ways To Deal With a Difficult Coworker

4. Be gracious and appreciative

Another strategy for addressing your colleague is by showing appreciation for their perspective. Although someone crossing your boundaries at work can be frustrating, they may have good intentions. Many people simply want to be helpful or are excited about accomplishing their own goals.

Here are a few examples of ways to ask for respectful treatment while also showing appreciation for their assistance:

  • "I really appreciate your advice on this project, but I'm going to focus independently for now."

  • "You have so much experience and skill in this area, I'd like to do this assignment myself so I can gain some practice."

  • "Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. I can definitely apply some of these ideas as I finish my work. I'll talk to you later!"

5. Remind them of your official duties

When talking to your colleagues about your expectations in the workplace, try reminding them of your job description. If someone regularly attempts to take credit for your work or asks to complete your assignments, talk to them about the scope of your position.

Remind them that as a team, it's both of your responsibilities to give one another the opportunity to succeed in your roles. Explain that you want the chance to fulfill your position, just as you want to provide them with the space and freedom to do their duties. This establishes mutual respect and a culture of fairness that many people appreciate.

6. Affirm your expertise

Reminding your colleagues that you're qualified for your position can help you establish boundaries in your role. Affirming your expertise and explaining that you're capable of being successful independently can guide your colleagues to focus more on their own assignments. When someone seems too involved with your work, try using phrases like:

  • "I've been using this design method for five years, so this is the technique I find to be most successful."

  • "This has been part of my role for the past six months, so I'm happy to continue."

  • "I get great results with this strategy, so I'm more comfortable keeping this client."

7. Set a clear boundary

If you have ongoing issues with a coworker, ask to meet with them so you can set a clear boundary. Explain to them that you want to have a positive working relationship with them, but you feel that you can't be fully successful in your role in your current situation.

Describe how their actions impact your workplace experience, including your performance on the team. Establish a clear boundary, such as only giving advice on your work when you ask. During the conversation, mention examples of the behavior you want to end and provide solutions of what you prefer instead.

Related: Conflict Resolution Skills: Definition and Examples

8. Ask for their reasoning

Consider asking your colleague for the motivation behind their behavior. Understanding why they do certain things can help you develop more productive solutions together. You may learn that they didn't realize their actions had an impact on you or that they wanted to collaborate more because they value your skills.

Having an honest discussion and giving them the opportunity to share their perspective can also ensure that you have a positive working relationship after your initial conversation. It shows that you aren't simply critiquing their personality but want to collaborate for a workplace that makes you both feel comfortable.

9. Seek advice from management

When you're unable to solve boundary issues on your own, talk to your supervisor for assistance. Ask them for advice on what to do when someone on your team interferes with your workflow. They can provide specific techniques to employ, supervise workplace interactions more closely or rearrange the team environment to help you be more productive.

Related: How To Deal With Unreasonable Demands at Work (With Steps)

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Tips for supportive work relationships

Here are a few tips you can use to create and grow supportive relationships with your colleagues:

  • Show interest in their work. Regularly ask your colleagues about the projects they're working on and engage in conversations about their work responsibilities to learn about their professional passions and interests.

  • Ask before offering advice. Unless you're a manager, always ask your coworkers before giving them feedback or advice. Some people may be open to criticism from their team while others may want support.

  • Share credit. When someone offers help and you accept, share credit for your success and thank them for their help. Spreading the benefits of successful work can create positive team bonds.

  • Be accountable. Practice self-awareness and be accountable for how your actions influence other people on your team. Check with your teammates to learn about any potential issues and actively work to forge positive bonds.

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