How To Tactfully Tell An Employee She Is Bossy?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about bossy employee: I supervise a team of five people. One member of my team, while a very experienced worker, consistently bosses her co-workers around. At times she even attempts to tell me how to do my job, and asks me to delegate her duties to others.

I supervise a team of five people. One member of my team, while a very experienced worker, consistently bosses her co-workers around. At times she even attempts to tell me how to do my job, and asks me to delegate her duties to others. I don’t want to discourage her from offering her ideas and suggestions, but I do need to have a talk with her about how inappropriate it is for her to treat her co-workers (and me) this way. Can you offer any suggestions on tactful ways to broach the subject, and constructive ways to phrase these concerns without sounding like I’m attacking her?

Signed, Tactfully Frustrated

Dear Tactfully Frustrated:

The best way to discuss behavior or performance that must change or improve is to talk simply, comfortably and briefly, rather than having a lengthy and painful discussion. It is particularly unpleasant to bring up things that happened months or years ago, unless those things were discussed at the time and have not been corrected. You write as though you care about people, so I doubt you would say anything that would be demeaning or inappropriate. However, even a saint can be accused of attacking someone. It is more likely that will happen if you have a discussion in which you are seen as giving her a long list of wrongdoing on her part. She would be justified in saying that you unloaded on her but had never told her before that she was doing anything wrong. This points out the value of intervening early about problems rather than letting them become a chronic condition.

Think of what your other employees have had to endure with her and how they have wished you would stop it! I always say, about intervention, “The earlier, the easier.” That certainly would have been true in this case.However, it’s never too late to intervene for the first time. You just make the next time she says something inappropriate the first time and stop it immediately. The only time you will have to refer to her history is if she asks you or if you find you must request an organizational sanction because her behavior is so bad.

Let’s consider a couple of possible scenarios:

1. You are present when Carol says to Jen, “We need to get on this right away, so get started today on it.” You intervene right then, “Carol! My goodness! What a tone of voice!” (Turn to Jen) “Jen, we DO need to get started on it, but let’s you and I talk about it a bit more. In fact, walk with me to my office so we can figure it out. Carol, I’ll get with you in awhile.”That’s clearly fictitious, but the point is, it is appropriate to briefly correct someone in front of an employee when an employee has been mistreated.Next, you either ask Carol to meet with you or you go by her desk if it’s private. Use what I refer to as a confidential tone. It has a sound as though you are sharing something important with her, just for her benefit. “Hey, Carol. I stopped you when you said that to Jen, because it sounded bossy coming from a peer. Be careful not to sound as though you are talking to her like her supervisor” (Stop and don’t say anything. Let her comment. Don’t give into the temptation to talk a lot.) She may say she didn’t mean to, but more likely she will say she was just telling Jen the facts or that you were mistaken.Don’t get into an argument, just use one of your broken record phrases. These are some possibilities: “It creates bad feelings when one team member seems to be bossing another one, even inadvertently. So, be careful not to give that impression. “I don’t want anyone on the team to feel a peer has authority over them, but that is how it sounded.” “Peers support and help each other they don’t give orders to each other, so you’ll want to make sure you don’t give an order as though you are a manager.” “I’ll accept that you didn’t mean to sound that way, but it DID sound that way.”You won’t be chewing her out and saying anything like, “You always sound bossy Carol and people are really fed up with it.” You’re stopping her behavior for the first time and will do it again if needed.

2. Another scenario: Carol corrects you and tries to impose her will on you. She uses a tone that is somewhat offensive because it sounds as though she thinks she is better able to manage the situation than you are. Hold up your hand like a stop sign. “Carol, stop. You’ve made your point but now you’re sounding as though you think you’re MY manager. Don’t do that.” Don’t say anything more. Let her respond or not. If she apologizes or says she thought you would want to hear another view, you can say one of the broken record phrases for that situation:”I’m sure you didn’t mean it. If I thought you did I’d be very upset. I’m just letting you know how it sounded so you won’t do that again.” “You have very good ideas and I always like to hear them. I just want you to always present them the right way. Don’t do it like this again.” “I’ll decide on my own, but please don’t correct me like that again.” The idea is to simply confront the immediate situation, not have a long, long counseling session about her chronic or habitual behavior.Some final thoughts: *If you were given this as a sample situation when you were first hoping to be made a supervisor, and told you must handle it correctly or not be promoted, how do you think you would handle it? Do what you know is the right thing, even though it isn’t easy. You know you would be viewed as incorrect to just ignore it. You would also be incorrect to talk badly to the employee or be sarcastic. On the other hand you know you should not apologize for correcting her and you should not use weasel phrases to avoid confronting. For example, “That sort of, could have sounded somewhat as though you were maybe trying to be bossy; but I’m sure you didn’t mean to.”*Link your concerns to work. What is the impact of her behavior on members of her team, on you, on clients? If a short correction isn’t helpful, you can mention that bigger picture.If you immediately correct inappropriate behavior you will save yourself and the employee a lot of stress. Just make the next time the first time and go from there, using comfortable, from-the-heart language and not overdoing it.Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time, please let us know what happened.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.