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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Handle Someone Who Insists on Going Over Your Head

I’m by no means a shrinking violet. But I have, on multiple occasions in my career, come up against people who treat me like I’m not “important enough” to work with them. And despite the fact that I usually feel pretty confident, this experience often leaves me a bit stunned.

You know the people I’m talking about, because you’ve probably come across them too. They’re the ones who CC your boss on every email, who talk over you when you work one-on-one, or who dismiss your ideas before you even have a chance to get them out.

Well, the good thing about handling these snobs (no wait, bullies; no wait, difficult clients or co-workers) is that learning to work with them provides you with invaluable skills. For example, what to do the next time someone insists on escalating a conversation to your manager.

Here’s my three-step plan to dealing with someone like this.

Step 1: Be Crystal Clear on Your Responsibilities

It’s very disempowering when someone tells you don’t have the authority to work with him. I imagine that the only thing worse would be to find out later that he was right.

If someone comes at you like she really ought to be speaking with your boss, it’s important that you’re 100% certain that you’re not, in fact, over-stepping. For example, I once had a role where part of my job was coalition-building. Before having coffee with a notoriously difficult member of the community, I sat down with my executive director and worked through the key points he wanted me to get across.

During my meeting that afternoon, when I said that we shared certain goals, this person pushed back that I couldn’t possibly speak on behalf of the organization. Because of my earlier discussion, I confidently stood my ground and cited the recent conversation with my supervisor as proof that I was indeed empowered to deliver this message.

Step 2: Stand Up for Yourself

It’s upsetting to feel like someone else is saying that you’re not worth his time. The lovely person I mentioned above also commented that it was inappropriate for me to reach out to her as there was someone “at my level” working beneath her in her organization.

However, your boss hired you and gave you this project for a reason: He knows you can do it! Also, he’d much rather his employees be allowed to do their jobs, rather than receive an extra 100 emails a day just because people want someone more powerful involved. So, be encouraged by your supervisor’s faith in you.

And while you might feel offended, try to avoid being contentious when you push back. In other words, “Actually, that’s what they pay me for…” isn’t going to help you build any bridges. You can get the same message across in kinder language such as, “Actually, Jason asked me to run point on this project due to my experience in organizing community events and my track record in fundraising.”

Step 3: Be a Tattletale

Yes, you read that correctly. Ideally, when you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to and you alert the other party to that fact, everyone proceeds to play nicely and get their work done.

But that’s not always how it works. Some people will keep disrespecting you, because in their world, it’s opposite day, and being rude to you will prove you’re not up to the task—resulting in an automatic in with your supervisor.

I appreciate that your first instinct is to handle this yourself, but if that’s simply not working, you need to alert your boss. If it’s someone in-house, your boss will probably want to talk him or her through an organizational chart and lead a discussion on what does and doesn’t need to be elevated.

If it’s an external stakeholder, your boss may have a variety of ways she can smooth things over. She can chime in that she’d love to take over, but as she is terribly busy, she won’t be able to get to this person’s urgent requests for several weeks. She can say that you’ve only said the most wonderful things about this other person and she’s so glad to hear that things are moving along as swimmingly as she had hoped. Or, she can say that she’d love to help, but as you are the expert, she’ll be consulting with you prior to each and every conversation because yours is the most valuable feedback of all.

If your supervisor needed to handle a VIP project personally, he would. And if he gave it to you, it’s because he thinks you’re the best person for the job. So, don’t let someone else’s poor attitude bring you down. Stay focused on doing the great job you’re known for.

Photo of frustrated man courtesy of Shutterstock.