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Summary: I have a manager "Alan". "Bob" is not my manager but during meetings he often gives me tasks and talks about his participation in my work. I feel uncomfortable but my manager doesn't know what to do.


I have a weekly meeting during which I've been asked to just listen in for situational awareness. The project leader, "Alan," keeps it short and simple. I regularly report on my progress to Alan at a separate meeting, plus whenever I'm asked by him to do so.

During the last several meetings, someone else involved in the project (call them "Bob"), who is neither the project lead, nor someone I report to, calls on me to discuss my efforts during the past week. He'll then jump in to discuss how he's supporting my work (which he's not, so it is a total lie) and then creates tasks assigns me tasks in front of everyone, giving him the appearance of being my supervisor.

This is not the first time Bob has done this. Two former project teammates had this happen to them (on other projects), and they didn't like it either. The first one left for unrelated reasons, and the second left the project due to Bob's behavior in general. Bob likes to make himself look like he's in charge, insinuate himself into situations, put himself between people's lines of communication to control projects and make himself the hub of everything. Bob has even tried to get between Alan and our customer. Bob's boss "Charlie", meanwhile, gives Bob a very long leash because Bob lets Charlie take credit, so Charlie is happy. Charlie is not my supervisor, nor Alan's.

I've talked to Alan, and while he understands and agrees, he's at a loss for what to do. I have a few ideas, and would prefer to stay on the project, but I don't want to make an uncomfortable situation worse.

How do you manage someone who passive-aggressively gets between people, makes themselves appear to be in charge, and lies/bullies to do it?

EDIT: The main difference here compared to another question is that in this case, the issue of third parties being present and involved further complicates the issue.

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10 Answers 10

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You don't need to be confrontational here to handle things appropriately - just be matter of fact.

To "assigning tasks":

Bob, thanks for the suggestion. I'd encourage you to talk to [supervisor] if you need my help with something, as they can arrange my workload appropriately.

To taking credit for helping when he didn't do something:

Bob, thanks for offering your support. I was unaware of your involvement on this; would you mind letting Alan know exactly what you've been doing, so he can make sure we're not duplicating efforts?

These replies are the same whether they're to a class-A jerk, or to someone who unintentionally did these things - a person who did help with something that you were unaware of would get the same response, as would a person who suggested you do a task but who wasn't your supervisor even if they had good reasons for it.

The other people involved can read between the lines, and I'm sure you're not the only person who's had this issue with him; as long as your supervisor, and the Project lead, know what's going on, you'll be fine.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 15 at 9:15
  • Yes, perfect. Don't get sucked into that alternative reality... 2 days ago
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I'm not sure why you don't just speak up and say "You don't really support that effort, in fact, I'm not sure why you are trying to assign tasks to me as you aren't my supervisor in anyway?"

You are an adult, you can ask direct, simple questions that establish yourself. You'll have to be ready to fight back a bit, because he'll definitely have a response when you try to break the leash he has on you. It'll get ugly because you are about to make him look bad, and he'll hate you for it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 15 at 9:13
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Since Bob has no authority over you or Alan, I'd suggest getting somewhat confrontational with Bob the next time they try to order you around. Nothing serious, just remind them of their place.

Thanks, Bob, for trying to be pro-active with task assignment, but Alan is my boss so I'll be taking my assignments from him.

You can also put Bob on the spot by asking, specifically, how he's been supportive to your efforts. Then begin to correct him when he starts making mistakes or lying.

Bob, since you've stated how much you've done in this project, why don't you give everyone an update on the process.
...
Um, Bob, no, that's not correct. We've done this, not that, and we're XX% done with the project, not YY%.

This could be considered "passive aggressive", but I'd rather think of it as giving someone enough rope to hang them selves with. If Bob lies obviously enough, you might not even have to correct him as someone else will, and hopefully that will be someone with authority over Bob.

As I mentioned in a comment on the Question, Bob's behavior smells of narcissism. If he or she truly is this way, once someone starts correcting them, they will likely get mad and quickly, as their "authority" is being questioned. Any reasonable person seeing this would realize the anger is unnecessary and Bob would start losing respect. With a narcissist, the more they lose respect, the worse their behavior. I'm not saying to egg them into doing something so grossly wrong they lose their job, but you can definitely, and easily, get them to the point where they get talked to by Charlie for their unprofessional behavior. Just remain professional yourself. Also, make sure you aren't harassing them, just use facts and a straightforward manner.

Basically, this boils down to being assertive for yourself, but not aggressive. You don't have to take this kind of behavior. It borders on abuse and that's not appropriate in the workplace.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Sep 15 at 9:16
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    This is really good advice on how to be proactive, assertive and confrontational in a professional and rather still friendly way. Give people early warning sings. But yes, even for this you need to step into your power, and it might not feel comfortable for you - but once you manage it it will make you stronger person.
    – Tomas
    Sep 15 at 13:25
  • "Um, Bob, no, that's not correct. We've done this, not that, and we're XX% done with the project, not YY%." - I've had better experiences with asking questions to make the person run into contradictions rather to blatantly call them a liar.
    – Fildor
    2 days ago
  • @Fildor, I've had spotty results with asking questions. You really have to be on top of things and be extremely prepared for it, otherwise they'll just lie some more. In the middle of a meeting, I'm probably not going to have all the resources to be able to know what questions to ask. But good on you if you do. 2 days ago
  • @computercarguy Not in all meetings. But we mostly know who is invited. On that we tend to base our level of "preparedness". And, yes. If you want to play that game, you better know the stats.
    – Fildor
    2 days ago
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If someone asks you to do something strange, they should feel like they asked something strange. I find asking clarifying questions about the request and appearing confused by it may convey your feeling. You should keep your conversation facts-based and direct, while attempting to clarify anything misleading.

Example

Bob: Can you update the team on the work you have done?
You: (raised eyebrows) Which part exactly?
Bob: (Generic response indicating Bob is not familiar with what you are doing)
You: Well, I've done thing #1 and thing #2. Detail detail detail. Does that answer your questions?

It's hard for Bob to take credit for your work if he isn't the one providing any detail, but if he tries anyway...

Bob: Yes, great job, I'll continuing to provide support on thing #1.
You: I think we've got the bases covered right now, but I'm happy to reach out if I need any help.

Bob: Can you also do task #3?
You: (raised eyebrows) I'm happy to do that if it's a priority.
You: (asking Alan, your manager and project manager) Do you want me to do task #3 this week? I feel like we should prioritize these new tasks with what we've been working.

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Be Prepared

I think Joe has a great answer, but you can push back a bit harder, I think. I would start out by printing out your org chart...the part that contains you, Alan, Bob, and Charlie. Then, I would print out a list of tasks & projects that Alan has assigned to you, and the people assigned to those projects.

The next time Bob tries to assert dominance, start writing down the meeting info on a pad of paper: the time, attendees, purpose, etc. After Bob "assigns" tasks to you, you can respond: "That's interesting, Bob. You see here, I have a list of tasks that Alan assigned to me, and I don't see your work items anywhere on that list. Hmm...let me consult my org chart. Then pull it out, make a little show of tracing the reporting lines, then say: 'Well that's funny. I only see one reporting line here, and it goes from me to Alan. I don't see any reporting lines from me to you. Do I not have the latest org chart?'"

When Bob starts to take credit for working on your project, you can say: "Well that's very interesting. These are the people that Alan assigned to work on this project, and this is the progress on it that I'm aware of. I didn't know you had free cycles to contribute, but I'll definitely let Charlie know. He will be excited to know you have spare bandwidth to work on some of his understaffed projects!"

Call The Bluff

Of course, if your company has more cooks than recipes to work on, then this is simply a consequence of being overstaffed. I've never worked in such a company before, so I don't know what to say then. If your company is like most, it is understaffed to varying degrees, and there is surely some manager near your team who would like to know that Bob has free cycles to help out on projects.

Follow Up

Remember those notes we took earlier? You need to follow up with two people. First, you need to talk to Alan's boss. Alan's job is to manage people. Alan's job is to protect his reports. Alan's job is to solve any problems that prevent his team from succeeding. He isn't doing his job, so you need to let his boss know that Alan is an ineffective manager. Bring the situation to their attention and say: "I like Alan, he's a nice guy, but he doesn't know how to manage this scenario. Another team is basically trying to usurp Alan's authority, and this reflects directly on you. If this gets out of hand, Bob is going to claim authority over your org. Alan could use some coaching in this situation."

Then wait to see if anything happens. If your skip level boss does nothing, then go to Bob's skip level boss. Let that person know that Bob has a lot of free time to help out on other team's projects, and you find it interesting that their org is over-staffed to that extent. You could casually mention some projects that you know are understaffed and dying for more folks, and just idly speculate whether any managers over there would be interested to hear about this slack in the team availability. If that doesn't spur some action, then it's time to look for another department or polish up your resume.

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    I hope your suggestion is not doing this in front of people. I think the correct approach is just ignore the workload from somebody who isn't your boss.
    – Donald
    Sep 14 at 20:53
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    @Donald I see you have never had a toxic coworker before. Ignoring them doesn't make them go away, any more than ignoring a tumor makes it go away. If they want to make a situation public, then I think you should oblige them. If you can get results without being public, so be it. Sep 15 at 3:49
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    @Donald well you're very lucky. I've worked with toxic individuals who survived for years without serious consequences. Sep 15 at 18:18
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    @Underminer there is the personal psychological cost of someone constantly trying to "own" you at work. Until it happens to you personally, it is difficult to imagine why it's a big deal. If your team has a good breadth of seniority, then some younger folks may be confused by this behavior or learn that its acceptable, because no senior folks challenge it. Future or budding sociopaths quickly learn new techniques by observation and how to push others as far as they can. Silence is enabling for these kinds of folks. Sep 15 at 18:21
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    @nick012000 really? The thing about an org chart is that it's a public document which the entire company should agree on. It's objective truth. Anyone who tries to debate it is tilting at windmills. It's less confrontational than saying: "Stop giving me orders. You're not my boss." But it also confronts someone who is trying to gaslight an entire team with simple, basic facts. The simplicity and uncontroversial objectivity of the org chart is exactly why I think it's appropriate. If team members don't agree on the org chart, then you have a much bigger problem. 2 days ago
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Two Sutras from a Veteran Guru.

-> World is never fair.

-> Rise up to the occasion or you will be trampled.


Coming to your issue, its is a leadership problem. The moment you told this to your manager he should have intervened.

Being a manager myself I can tell you one thing, the first and foremost duty of a manager is to keep the team and team dynamics healthy. Your manager should be ready to be a tortoise and you should give him a heads up when communication is gonna come his way.

Soft skills are very important. A very senior mentor of mine currently Vice President of a Company told me long back "You should learn how to say no". I was a very junior dev then.

Concerning your two issues.


  • Assigning Tasks:

When someone higher in ladder but not directly in your org lineup/chart gives you items/tasks it feels weird and its wrong, that it and there is no other expression. So there are 2 things that need to be answered here.

  1. Why are you there in this meeting? Its either a collaborative project or an adHoc meeting.
  2. Who is leading this project, the Project POC? You are only answerable to the Lead/Project POC.

If Bob tries to assign you tasks if an environment where he is not the lead of a project you should calmly say "Please reach out to my manager. My team already has other items planned." This is a very normal communication and don't hesitate to say it, no need to be shy, no need to tell it privately.

If you feel someone is overstepping you should assertively say, "Talk to my manager", leave the word please.

Now Alan should be ready to handle communication and heat if required.

In my team, no one accepts any task without my knowledge. They just say "please reach out to my manager". When they come to me and say "Hey we need help with this task X, so can you please help us out and ask person A in your team to pick it up", I say "Explain this task X, how urgent is it and for what reason. If urgent I will see the best person fit and let you know who can help you out. You know we have our items planned, but if it looks urgent I will see what I can do."

No one can dictate anything to any member of my team and if required I am always ready to have a argument even with my own manager. I will tell you a line I told my manager's manager a couple of years ago in a meeting. "Someone random comes and tells something and you ask us to run after it, to pick items with no proper explanation or the urgency and it not even in my team's planning. I don't think thats correct." He had a very hesitant smile and my expression was serious. With experience maturity in managing people comes.


  • Taking Undue Credit

Your manager should be present in that meeting, tell him to join. If Bob discusses your work then he is essentially reviewing your work. You should ask why is he discussing your work in that forum, say it out loud, no need to be shy. If he is saying he is supporting you or something you should raise the question, how was he involved. Explain then and there who worked on it and who helped. You manager should raise an objection that its neither the correct place nor the appropriate leadership to be discussing or reviewing his teams work and he finds it very inappropriate.

Key Points

-> Your Manager should be Confident, Assertive and Ready to take on any communication and tackle it. Thats his job. This is exactly what I tell my team members, you do yours, I will do mine, you have my 200% support. They can always throw me into fire, no issues.

-> You should be Assertive and Confident. Remember your manager is your shield.

I am not sure if you ever witnessed anything of this nature but I have been in 1:1 discussions where I went to extent asking the other guy 'why does the company pay you'. It was a very heated discussion. No member of my team knows about it, they need not, its my job.

If you have bad manager change the team you don't have much option then, this is honest. Industry research says 80% of people changing teams do it because of their manager, either bad or incompetent.

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While Joe's suggestion is quite good (telling Bob to go through OP's boss, Alan), this will only work if:

  1. OP (iwantmyphd) and Alan are on the same page.
  2. Alan actually has any authority over Bob.
  3. Alan is willing to use this authority.

Otherwise, Alan may resent iwantmyphd passing the buck to him, even though s/he is right to do so - ensuring hierarchy and proper allocation of resources and work is the role of the higher ups, and anyone upsetting this does need to be reminded of their place in the organisation.

If Alan has no authority over Bob, then Alan needs to go to his boss and bring it to their attention. Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved if someone who has authority over Bob is willing to take action. Otherwise, the first thing iwantmyphd needs to figure out is why they are unwilling to act.

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    Alan only needs to be a peer or Bob. At that point Alan can say "That's not what I've assigned my department to".
    – JonTheMon
    Sep 14 at 16:06
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    Actually, Alan only needs to have authority over OP. Their relationship to Bob is completely irrelevant. Bob could be the CEO and it wouldn't matter - Alan's job is to manage OP and he can't do that if somebody else is randomly assigning work.
    – aleppke
    Sep 14 at 16:40
  • @aleppke - Their relationship to Bob is completely irrelevant. - No, it isn't irrelevant. Bob already has a good rapport with his boss. And if things were really so simple Alan can easily put off Bob by pulling his authority. Instead, he has told OP that he isn't sure how to handle Bob. That indicates that he is either unassertive or unwilling to upset Bob for whatever reasons. Bob could be one of those long-timers who may not be promotable but still knows a lot about the company and the work they do. And note that Bob is also involved in the same project.
    – sfxedit
    Sep 14 at 21:34
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    @JonTheMon Alan, OP and Bob are working on the same project, even if their roles / assignments may be different. And you forget that OP has already discussed the issue with Alan, who has told her clearly that he isn't sure how to handle it, indicating that it is not a simple matter of Alan asserting his authority and diplomatically asking Bob to mind his own business.
    – sfxedit
    Sep 14 at 21:39
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    @sfxedit: If I'm understanding the question correctly (and OP is understanding the situation correctly), then Bob doesn't actually care if OP does the tasks that Bob is "assigning"; rather, Bob is "assigning" them just to give the impression of being in charge of OP. By telling Bob to speak to Alan, OP negates that impression -- but doesn't give Bob any real motivation to go speak to Alan, since speaking to Alan won't accomplish any of Bob's goals. So Alan won't actually need to be able to stand up to Bob.
    – ruakh
    Sep 15 at 3:21
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I've talked to Alan, and while he understands and agrees, he's at a loss for what to do. I have a few ideas, and would prefer to stay on the project, but I don't want to make an uncomfortable situation worse.

So let me redefine the organigram here.

You have you, above you is Alan.

Bob is trying take undeserved control of you, and possibly Alan. Charlie, Bob's manager, takes credit for Bob's efforts in encroaching on others' authority and won't do a thing.

This organigram seems to lack a very important component: the person above Charlie. I would say the obvious answer is to go to the person above Charlie and explain the facts. If you feel like that person is too high up to handle such low hierarchy problems, then it would be worth it to do the following steps:

  1. Try to contact them informally and tell them about the problem
  2. If they do nothing, write in plain black on white emails what the problem is and how it disrupts both your work and your trust towards a colleague that behaves abusively
  3. Raise a stink

The latter might seem like a bad idea, but if you have gone to the higher ups and clearly stated that disruptive or outright abusive behaviour has happened, and nothing was done, it would be good for both you and Alan, together, to clearly, perhaps even somewhat brutally (accusing him in public, nothing physical) state that Bob is abusive.

Doing this without telling your hierarchy first would be a grave mistake, in every way, they will see you as the problem. Go to them first, see if they act. If they do, Bob will try to act like a victim of some cabal. Openly confront him when he does, and say that you will have to report the continuation of his lies and attitude. If they don't, you raise the stink you can and should.

How do you manage someone who passive-aggressively gets between people, makes themselves appear to be in charge, and lies/bullies to do it?

Bullies are very good at acting like innocent victims whenever they're called out by one person, and also very good at threatening people when confronted, but it is a very different fashion if it happens with several people and in public. Abusers use secrecy and misdirection to deflect. Even with a very talented manipulator, being called out in front of everyone with clear accusations will not be easy.

For example:

  • Take notes of what he's said/done/lied about, then throw it in his face in a meeting.
  • If he tries running away, say in front of everyone that he's running because he knows he's guilty of it. Force him to face your accusations or lose face.
  • Very clearly say not just in front of people what you think of him, but that he's untrustworthy.

Dealing with abusers in the workplace is particularly hard because they can always get away with murder as long as they can pass as problem handlers. And of course, what better problem handler than the one that creates the problems?

But it is not because they pass as problem handlers that they are. The best course of action for a bully that abuses his status is to not only put him back to his place in front of everyone, but also to request of him that he actually handle the problems he cannot. If he is the type to pretend to solve everyone's stuff and be the actual boss, pressuring him into taking a task he can't handle and then letting him bomb it shouldn't be too difficult.

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One trick that works surprisingly well is to ignore them.

You clearly don't like confrontation and won't do very well repeating something from the internet (it will probably go like the "ocean is out of shrimp" Seinfeld episode). It seems like everyone else already knows you don't take orders from Bob, and that Bob is just that way. I'm guessing you maybe do some of what Bob says, but not all -- so a policy of ignoring everything Bob says would be more clear to everyone else. Your boss knows you're not getting that extra help Bob brags about giving, so no problem being called lazy. Given the fact Bob's not going away (your boss apparently wasn't in his face with "can you refrain from giving orders to my employee, who's only there as an observer"), just letting him talk is the fastest way to get it over with. And there's no point making an enemy -- Bob clearly has some pull, and I'm guessing there's never any follow-up on whether you actually did those things. Let him talk without drawing things out.

It's a variation of not getting in the way of crazy people, which is what the "Bob fools no-one by acting like a big man" segment of your meeting seems to be. If you haven't, double-check with your boss if he wants you to do what Bob tells you in these meetings (if he says "yes", you have other problems).

The other way I mean to ignore this is to not worry about whatever benefit Bob gets from this, or why your group tolerates this nonsense. Think about all of the people who get paid way more than Bob for complete no-show jobs. And someone is wasting time in a meeting -- turns out Dilbert was right about meetings, time gets wasted sometimes. Basically, you have to deal with a jerk who has no power over you, for 10 minutes a week. Don't waste Sunday night stressing about how to respond.

The potential downside is when someone wants to know why you haven't been following Bob's orders; or why you get so little done, factoring in all of the help Bob gives you. In practice that tends not to happen -- they know that you've figured out it's not your job. But even if it does, it's better that it's not you complaining -- they've come to you and will bring up each subject. You get to stutter easy, obvious stuff like: "but I work for Alan", "I don't even understand why I'm being given work as an observer", "But Bob doesn't actually give me any help", "no" (in response to "but aren't people surprised when you don't do Bob's work?"), and "yes" (in response to "does Alan know about this?") Or at worst "I didn't know what to do when some guy I don't know at a meeting I'm barely supposed to be at starts giving me orders". Hard to argue with that.

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The ray of light here is that Alan is not Charlie and can see what Bob is up to. Imagine working alongside Bob for Charlie! You would be well and truly sunk.

In addition to the fixes already suggested, I would recommend the "sorry folks, I've got to take this" spiel and leave the room whenever Bob starts to annoy you. The meeting will then move on to something els and things should be safe in about 5 minutes.

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    Leaving the room makes you give up all control and may look childish. Can you explain the intention/goal behind this?
    – DarkDust
    Sep 14 at 11:50

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