How to Gracefully Handle a Pushy Co-Worker

If you have a job that requires interaction with other people, chances are you’ve crossed paths with a pushy co-worker at some point. Sometimes it’s blatant, as in someone foisting extra work on you because they don’t feel like doing it themselves. In other cases, it might be subtler and harder to spot, as was the case for Ellen Mullarkey, VP of business development for Messina Group Staffing.

Early in her career, Mullarkey worked with someone who was always offloading extra work onto her. She didn’t realize at first what was happening—just that she was constantly swamped in work and struggling to keep up. Over time, she started to notice him taking credit for work she had completed.

"It was a strange situation because he acted very friendly toward me, so it was a subtle kind of pushiness that took me a while to figure out," she says. "In a way, it was actually very manipulative."

In other situations, we may feel "pushed" by a co-worker for different reasons, says Samantha Crowe with Evalia Consulting. For example, a co-worker may give unsolicited advice or feedback that isn’t appropriate for the relationship. And in some instances, we may feel pushed not by what they do, but how they do it.

As Crowe points out, we don’t control others’ actions, but we do control our response to them. "Often, when dealing with a pushy co-worker, we have to find new ways to respond to their actions by shifting our mindsets, feelings, thoughts or actions," she says.

If you find yourself in this type of predicament, you don’t have to accept the behavior, nor do you have to engage in a hostile exchange. Keep it positive—yet productive—with these smart strategies.

Stay calm and STOP.

Licensed professional clinical counselor Lisa Bahar suggests using the "STOP" skill. The "S" stands for stop—don’t react right away, as your emotions may trigger you to say something you shouldn’t or don’t actually want to say. The "T" stands for taking a step back, which can actually be a literal step back to signal your brain that you need distance from a reaction. Next, the "O" is for observing what is taking place within you: notice your body, take a deep breath, half smile and exhale. Then you may be ready to "P," which is to proceed with responding to your co-worker with a neutral statement, which could be, "I will have to think about that, thank you for asking, let me get back to you."

Respond in an assertive (but not aggressive) manner.

Be polite but firm, suggests Nina LaRosa, marketing director of HR online training company Moxie Media. "If you are already overwhelmed with your workload, it’s okay to say 'no' when someone asks you to take on another project or task," she notes. "Just being direct about your capacity and standing your ground can help curb someone else from bullying you into taking on their work. Appear confident and perhaps offer suggestions about how to solve the problem."

Ask questions.

Often, when someone is being pushy and forceful, they feel they are not being heard, notes Kira Nurieli, certified mediator and founder of Harmony Strategies Group. "When you ask questions, you indicate that you are genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say, which creates a more collaborative dynamic," she says. Nurieli suggests framing your questions with group pronouns like "our project" and "our team." For instance, you might ask, "How much priority should we be placing on this project?" Or "Is this the best angle, given our current workload?" 

Start with appreciation.

Nurieli warns that pushing back against a pushy person can increase the tension further and lead to full-blown hostility. Instead, she suggests trying to disarm them with a note of gratitude before directly pushing back. For example, you might say, "I appreciate you taking this project so seriously. Unfortunately, I’m pretty packed right now, and won’t be able to take on that extra work."

Don't take it personally.

It’s important to understand the motivations of demanding, pushy people and to not take things personally, notes Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW. "Generally, pushy people are anxious and controlling because they feel a great deal of inner pressure," she explains. "Feeling that pressure to get things done, they are trying to get us to do something to reduce their anxiety, not to intentionally make our lives miserable."

Seek support.

If you have spoken with your co-worker politely yet firmly about the issue and the problem still persists, LaRosa suggests reaching out to your boss or HR rep for help. "Even if it feels uncomfortable to report someone, it is important that the workplace as a whole can be safe and comfortable for everyone," she says. When reporting the issue, LaRosa says it’s best to be direct and professional, and to bring any documentation you have gathered about your communication with the co-worker.