Like it or not, there are people in the office who will try to take advantage of you, take credit for your work, and try to push their projects off on you. It may not be immediately obvious to you that you’re being used in the work place, but the sooner you become aware of this common reality, the better off you’ll be.
“Some people believe that the world — and particularly the business world– should be fair. Unfortunately, such a view is rather unrealistic,” explained John Vespasian, author of On Becoming Unbreakable: How Normal People Become Extraordinarily Self-Confident. “In any group, you will always find a few individuals that try to take advantage of other people in any way they can. There is no such thing as a perfect working environment.”
But just because you encounter users in the office doesn’t mean you have to succumb to their antics.”The fact that some individual may take advantage of you at work cannot harm you physically or psychologically — unless, of course, you take the situation too seriously, and drive yourself into a nervous breakdown,” Vespasian added. “In the long term, individuals who systematically try to take advantage of other people will end up alienating their employees and customers.”
According to life and performance coach Shannon McGurk, founder of Authentic Masculinity Executive, there are basically two types of people who use others at work. “There are those who take advantage from strength (positional or otherwise) and those who take advantage from weakness (usually manipulation). Figuring out which is key to getting back in control.”
If the person takes advantage from strength, yield, then be strong in return, McGurk said. If they take advantage from weakness, use communication skills to re-position yourself, find allies and reassert control. “Remember, ‘Calm is powerful,’ and recognize that it is the weaker party who allows their emotions to control their actions,” he added. “The strong party knows their actions drive their emotions. This realization can be life changing and is an example of how to grow to be bigger than the immediate problem. The good news? Once you conquer the user, you’re still as big as you grew in the process so you win.”
Master certified coach Don Maruska, author of Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, said don’t let others make you a victim. “I recommend a clear, direct approach, which has three parts: intention–state your intention clearly in terms that show what’s in it for the person you are speaking to and yourself; observation–describe what you observe in objective terms. For example, ‘When you said/did [try to state the exact words or observed behavior], I felt [your feeling]. It had [describe impact on you and others who observed it and link back to the intention you stated]’; lastly, request–make it simple, short, and direct. For example, ‘Sam, can I count on you to stop saying/doing [describe specific behavior]?’
After that dialogue, confirm your conversation with the offender and be clear about your agreement, Maruska added. “For example, say. ‘OK, you agree [describe agreement]. Let’s check in [define specific time or situation] to confirm that this is working and we are working together in ways that bring forth the best in each of us.’”
There are also more proactive means of a avoiding being used in the workplace, like refusing to fall into the trap of being the “officer helper.” While it can be flattering that people need you, pay attention to why people are asking for your help. Do they really need your assistance, or do they just want you to do their work? “You should be commended for having a natural instinct for helping people. However, that doesn’t mean you should be taken advantage of just because you’re so willing to go above and beyond,” wrote Muse. “Use your judgment, and if you think someone is just being a little lazy about the tasks on his or her plate, feel free to take it as a compliment for a minute. After all, you’re only being asked because it’s obvious you’re sharp. But once you’ve let your ego bask in the glory, be an advocate for yourself and do what’s in your own best interest.
With coworkers who use people you must establish clear boundaries and cut off their attempts to take advantage of you. “Learn how to say no in a professional, matter-of-fact way,” said Becky Blanton, author of The Homeless Entrepreneur. “If you’re having problems with users, you don’t know how to say no in a convincing or authoritative way. Only co-dependents and people fearful of confrontation have issues with users. Users seek out those who crave approval, notice, love and a need to be liked. Users exploit people they know they can use. If you’re not one of those people they will tend to leave you alone after testing you to see if you’ll cave to their requests. When you say no enough they will ignore and respect you.”
Blanton said it’s also important to have a clear understanding of your role and responsibilities so others can’t get you to do tasks that fall outside of that. “Know your job description, what you are and aren’t responsible for. If there is no official job description, create one for yourself. That way you can point to the job description as a boundary. While you want to be a team player, you need to point out that your responsibilities come first, and if there is time and resources left after that, you’ll be happy to help.”
In addition to companies policies, set your own boundaries regarding what you will and won’t do. “Sit down and create your own set of ‘policies’ (like boundaries, only easier to refer to when confronting a user),” Blanton said. “Policies state what you will and won’t do. Run these by your supervisor (unless they are the user) to make sure they’re acceptable. One policy might be that you do not take on other work outside your assigned duties without an email or signed request from your supervisor. This will cut out 90 percent of users. The other 10 percent will try to guilt you into doing it anyway.”
A few good “personnel policies” include:
“It’s a policy of mine to never lend money to anyone.”
“It’s a policy of mine to not lie for co-workers. I believe honesty is the best policy.”
“It’s a policy of mine to not work weekends.”
“It’s a policy of mine to not start work on a project until I have a contract/agreement/deposit.” (This is especially good for freelancers.)
Setting boundaries at work doesn’t mean you are not a team player. It does mean, however, that you take your work seriously and you expect others to respect that.