Summary: My colleague asked me for "recommendations" on how to fix something in their area of authority. I provided steps to resolve it. Now I feel that my colleague is trying to share these tasks with me, and that they will expect me to contribute my own time. How can I professionally manage expectations and not take on extra work unless my manager tells me to do it?

Sam and I work at the same software company. Recently, there was some audit done for the setup of the software system. An issue was found in an area under Sam's authority.

We now need to rectify the problem. Since the problem was in Sam's area, he's the owner of that task to take the necessary steps.

I received a message from Sam asking for "recommendations" on how to address the problem, since I also have experience in this area. I did some research to verify the solution I had in mind and wrote a brief summary on what are the next steps in my view (invested about 1 hour).

Sam replied "thank you", and asked "if we could continue executing on these steps" to solve the problem. It was quite obvious though that the general tone in that message was that I should take over executing on the solution, but this was only ever implied. It was never mentioned that I should actually do it.

Now, there is some overlap between our areas. But what concerns me:

  • Sam never asked explicitly if I can take over the task. He can't assign it to me, since we're on the same level. I find this somewhat dishonest to try to offload work, without actually asking for it.
  • I feel that if I just jump on this and try to help out, I open the backdoor for further indirect requests in the future.
  • I also want to help out colleagues (which I also did by outlining the steps), so I'm worried about being seen as not a team player.
  • One of the core members of my small team is leaving in 10 days and I have loads of work to do to build up their replacement, who doesn't have much experience. I'm worried about taking over a not-so-small task while having 1 key member less in my group.

What's the way forward here? I'd like to help Sam but I also don't want to be on the hook for something that wasn't my task in the first place, while I'm also under pressure myself due to changes in staffing.

  • 3
    What’s wrong with only helping when they ask you a direct question, like with the recommendations on ways forward?
    – AsheraH
    Aug 25, 2021 at 6:55
  • 22
    Things are simple : tell Sam to contact your manager if he wants to offload the task. Otherwise tell him that you have other priorities (i.e. you are busy :) )
    – rs.29
    Aug 25, 2021 at 7:33
  • 15
    "... he asked we "if we could continue executing on these steps" to solve the problem ..." - Are you sure he meant we = you and him and not we = him and his team?
    – marcelm
    Aug 25, 2021 at 15:14
  • 1
    @rs.29 as phrased, that sounds like volunteering. I would recommend asking that question only if you are OK with the answer being "yes". Aug 25, 2021 at 23:48
  • 1
    changed title and added summary. Please feel free to edit/roll back if it is not properly articulated. I tried to switch to "I-language" because your feelings seem to be the real issue Aug 26, 2021 at 13:36

7 Answers 7


Particularly if this is the first time this has happened, just ask the direct question:

Hi Sam.

How much time do you think you'll need from me on this project?

If that number comes back as something more than what you're happy with, talk to your manager about how you should be prioritising your time.

  • 2
    Note that this is an open question, and there is no commitment. Something of this scale needs to also be informed by the manager for allocation and prioritization. If Sam tries to talk in person to get a commitment, always go back to email and create a paper-trail. Anyone that's trying to do shady stuff will shy away from creating a paper-trail, and may voluntarily leave you alone.
    – Nelson
    Aug 25, 2021 at 7:12
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    This can be very counter productive. If Sam says "2 hours" and you spent two hours and it's not done, then what? I mean how would Sam even know, what you can or cannot do in 2 hours? Wouldn't that be up to you to estimate?
    – nvoigt
    Aug 25, 2021 at 8:00
  • 2
    I think this is the most straightforward and non-confrontative answer. I should check how much involvement is expected here, then we can see. I was also really tempted to write back something like "sure /you/ can continue", but I think it's not wise to do that at the moment. I actually get along well with Sam so far. Aug 25, 2021 at 11:12
  • 12
    Take the time estimate, add 50% (or whatever you think the error margin might be) and decide if you are prepared to invest that. If yes, once you are coming close, give a warning, once you are over, politely bow out of further major help investment. Aug 25, 2021 at 11:52
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    @nvoigt: Then you ask your manager whether you should be working on Sam's task or on some other task. This is not "tattling," as your manager has every right to know which project you are working on at any given time. But there's (probably, in most reasonable work places) nothing wrong with giving Sam an hour or two of your time, if you feel you can spare it, and then going to your manager after it outgrows that limit.
    – Kevin
    Aug 25, 2021 at 23:37

I am assuming you are no free roaming agent picking up whatever you think needs working on. You have some kind of manager that assigns tasks to you. So let this manager decide whether you should be working on it.

Hey Sam, if you need some support or if further questions arise, I would be happy to discuss them. If you need actual work done, please contact $Manager so they can plan for me to work on it.

This way, you have not said "no", you have shown Sam a constructive way forward. At the same time, you have made sure that it does not collide with your other duties.

  • 5
    Sam and I have the same manager, but overall we are kind of relatively free in decision making. The manager is somewhat hands-off tbh, which sometimes creates situations like this where it's not 100% clear who takes what (but of course also provides freedom) Aug 25, 2021 at 7:31
  • 1
    I'd also CC your manager while you do this.
    – nick012000
    Aug 26, 2021 at 10:22
  • I'd word this very slightly differently. "If you'd like me to spend any time on this task, please ask {Manager} to re-arrange my other priorities accordingly". That is, make it so that the manager is actually forced to understand the impact on your other work, and to EITHER do something about it OR refuse Sam's request. Aug 29, 2021 at 3:07

You mention in the comments that

  • your manager is hands-off, and that
  • you get along well with Sam.

So just walk over to Sam's office (or pick up the phone if you're in home office) and talk about who will do the work: him, you, or him with you helping him out if he gets stuck (which seems to be your preferred option and probably makes most sense considering your current workload).

And listen to what he has to say: Maybe he has an unexpected, high-priority issue that needs to be dealt with and it actually makes sense for you to do the work instead of him. Or maybe your recommendations went way over his head and he just needs some in-person knowledge transfer. Or maybe by writing "we" he really meant "him and his team" (as suggested by one of the commenters), and this is all just a big misunderstanding.

You'll only find out by talking openly, not by exchanging mails with subtle hints. If your manager is really hands-off, you two coordinating the tasks between yourselves is exactly what he wants you to do. Don't worry about not being seen as a team player, be a team player.


On the other hand, I also want to help out colleagues (which I also did by outlining the steps.), so I'm worried to be not seen as a team player.

This is really the only issue I see here.

It's you fear of not having the approval your co-worker. It's the need to control what others think of you (which is basically impossible).

You need to get over this. You can't do everyone's work. Perhaps, you might want to enroll in some codependency therapy or do some assertiveness training.

If you don't do something about this personality trait of yours, this colleague (and others) will continue to offload their work onto you. And life is just too short for that.

  • It depends on the company. If the project fails, then he might ask Sam, Sam might say: the project was over my head then I asked B to help me to save the project, but he refused. Depending on company culture the manager might ask you: why didn't you help him? And answering: I can't do every bodies work might not fly.
    – lalala
    Aug 26, 2021 at 11:58
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    @lalala, But Sam didn't directly ask for help. That's the point. "I find this somewhat dishonest to try to offload work, without actually asking for it." See the rest of OP's question for more context. Aug 26, 2021 at 19:23

When he starts fishing, don't bite, but make it clear, preferably in writing that you think this is in his basket.

"Well, to me that sounds like a solid plan. So if you agree it would probably be a good idea if you started implementing it." or "Well, that's what I'd do, but it's your task and your decision obviously" should clarify your point of view.

If he disagrees he needs to openly address that and then you can involve the manager to clarify who works on what should you see things differently.


No is a complete sentence.

Sam: Could we continue executing on these steps?

You: Sorry, Sam. I'd love to help more, but I just don't have the time right now.

This is true, still appropriately polite, but direct enough to establish your boundary.

If you have a hard time saying "no", make it a habit to never promise anything significant right away. Let's say, Sam asks you in person or on the phone. Then a conversation could go like this:

Sam: Could we do this or that part of my work together?

You: Thanks for asking. Let me check my schedule and get back to you tomorrow at the latest.

Then check your schedule. Make a realistic assessment of your priorities and workload. Whenever convenient (don't let yourself be rushed), but at the latest on the next day, tell Sam what help, if any, he can expect when. If he needs more help than you can provide, but you really want to help him further, ask your boss if you can reprioritize some tasks or get extra resources to help Sam. Be specific about what will need to wait for how long or what resources you need. Tell Sam that you need to discuss with your Boss first.


I find this somewhat dishonest to try to offload work, without actually asking for it.

You indirectly volunteered by outlining a solution.

If you don't want to be involved, don't get involved. Too late now though, if you don't want to do it, just say you're busy with other stuff.

  • 5
    He did not volunteer to take full responsibility for the task. He only outlined a solution, and that outlining part is done.
    – donjuedo
    Aug 25, 2021 at 17:59
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    "You indirectly volunteered", unfortunately this is true in some work environments and some work relationships. As I am someone who values supporting my teammates, knowing when my help is going to be construed as volunteering or not is critical to balancing my work priorities. While I think this answer only represents some situations, I don't think it deserves a downvote. Aug 25, 2021 at 20:10
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    @NathanGoings sure, but outlining a solution != volunteering to anything, hence the downvotes.
    – hanshenrik
    Aug 25, 2021 at 20:18
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    @Kilisi if you ask your co-workers for help in solving a problem, and one of them comes up with a plan to solve it, do you automatically assume that co-worker is going to do the work for you, just because that co-worker came up with the plan on how to solve it? i guess that's where we differ? you assume the co-worker will do the work for you, and i don't?
    – hanshenrik
    Aug 25, 2021 at 20:51
  • 2
    @hanshenrik no, no I don't make that assumption, but I'm not the OP's colleague. I do know people who would see it as an opportunity/opening to try and make the OP do the work if possible. Therein lies the difference. There is no shortage of people in the 'real' world that would take advantage of others goodwill. Best thing is not give them an opening to do so as my answer says. I only get bitten once.
    – Kilisi
    Aug 25, 2021 at 22:38

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