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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Here's How You Can Be a Team Player at Work—Without Being a Total Doormat

woman saying no

A contributing employee. A strong team player. A go-getter.

Yes, they’re all positive and desirable qualities—particularly in a work setting. In fact, they’re all things that employers actively look for when combing through candidates for a position.

But, we all know there’s a line here, and it’s all too easy to cross. Suddenly, you transition from being seen as helpful and supportive to being viewed as your office’s resident pushover. Instead of feeling like you’re offering significant value, you find yourself with everyone else’s busy work piled on your own desk. You want to be accommodating and cooperative, but ideally you could do that without opening up an invitation to be walked all over.

I know that this can be a fine line to tow. Believe me, I’ve been there. But, it’s manageable! Here are four tips to successfully walk that tightrope between being a doer and a total doormat.

1. Know Your Own Responsibilities

When you’re on the clock, what’s your main responsibility? To get your work done. Your is the keyword there. You’re in the office to take care of your tasks and responsibilities—not necessarily everybody else’s.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being helpful, and you never want to be the person who belligerently shouts, “That’s not my job!” all over the office. However, you need to remember that your own work comes first—no matter how selfish that seems. You shouldn’t push your own to-dos to the backburner in favor of helping someone else out.

So, sit down and determine where your responsibilities end and another person’s start. You likely already have a good handle on this (and have just been ignoring your own hesitations!), but go ahead and ask your supervisor if you’re confused on whether or not something is truly your piece of the puzzle. This will not only help you in prioritizing your to-do list ahead of everyone else’s, but will also allow you to determine if you even have the bandwidth to help with additional projects.

2. Speak Up

Yes, this is the tough part—especially if you’ve established a reputation in your workplace as a timid easy mark who’s eager to please. But, if you truly want to change your experience, then you need to first change your behavior.

How do you do this? Start small by providing your opinion in a team meeting, particularly if you think you have a suggestion for an area or responsibility where someone else in your department could really shine. It gets that load off your plate in a constructive and complementary way. And, by all means, take credit for your own work. If you put in the time and effort, you deserve some recognition. That doesn’t make you arrogant or greedy—it makes you human.

Finally, the most important point: Learn to say no. I know that this can seem unnatural and uncomfortable if you’ve grown used to being a “yes person.” But, it’s a critical skill if you’re going to start turning things around.

As mentioned above, jotting down what responsibilities fall under your job description should help greatly with this. It’ll make it easier to turn people down (and provide some solid, fallback justification!)—at least until you have your own specific tasks crossed off your list.

3. Establish Guidelines

Sometimes I think that team projects were invented as a tool to force one person to carry the entire load—particularly if you’re the one most dedicated to getting the job done well. After all, unless someone tattles, your boss will likely never know if one employee took care of absolutely everything while the others kicked their feet up on their desks and relaxed.

This is why it’s so important to set boundaries with your colleagues early on. Make it crystal clear who is responsible for what portion of the project, including specific tasks and deadlines. Beyond that? You should also emphasize what will happen if those requirements aren’t met. Explain that your team won’t band together to sweep that co-worker’s laziness under the rug and take care of that duty yourselves in an effort to save face in front of your boss. Instead, you’ll share with your supervisor exactly why that portion of the project remains incomplete.

Yes, it seems a little brutal and cutthroat. But, if you stick with your standard method of picking up that person’s mess and carrying on, you’re just right back where you started. And, that irresponsible team member will likely never change his or her ways.

Of course, it’s important to have some understanding here. Things come up that are beyond people’s control—such as a sick day or a personal crisis. But, your team should operate with the understanding that each person is responsible for his or her individual piece, barring any serious complications.

4. Stand Firm

When you’re trying to change others’ perceptions of you, consistency is key. After all, you’ll only look weak and uncertain if you start with a firm refusal only to eventually be worn down and talked into handling someone else’s work anyway. Even your strongest “No” will always mean, “Well, maybe.”

So, once you’ve set these rules for yourself, it’s important that you make an effort to stick with them. People will begin to respect your opinions and convictions, and your final answer will finally be seen as just that—your final answer.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a supportive and contributing team member. In fact, I encourage it. But, everybody soon realizes that there’s a pretty big difference between being nice and way too nice. You want to be viewed as a peer and an equal—not a doormat.

So, use these four quick tips, and you’ll finally be on a level playing field with your colleagues—rather than constantly under their feet.