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Background

I've been with my company for five years and have the most seniority (seniority doesn't really mean much other than scheduling shifts and general knowledge). I offset my regular full-time position duties with one shift every week in which I was in charge of the entire facility's operations as they pertain to my specialty. Let's call this once a week shift's title "Supervisor". I trained many additional Supervisors who would take the shifts I didn't work.

One of the Supervisors I trained, Bob, was and is still new to my company. Bob was a great coworker, fast learner, and we got along very well without ever an issue.

Situation

Recently, I accepted a position in my department that was created custom for me by a previous manager to fill an critical department need where I have ample experience and know-how. I've been given a great deal of autonomy to accomplish my tasks however I see fit. It has been a great experience so far.

Bob also took a new position 3 months ago but in a different department that manages tasks that are adjacent to mine but are distinct and separate. As such, Bob and I go to similar meetings, strategize and collaborate together on similar projects, and still get along very well.

Issue Presents Itself

The last few weeks of working alongside Bob has left me with the impression that he believes he is my manager. Saying things like, "When are you going to get product X to me?" or "Is there anything important C-Level Boss should be made aware of?" This suspicion was confirmed tonight, when a trusted coworker who is a team lead informed me that Bob was upset with me for not informing him that I was putting on a training for a customer. He said something to my coworker to the effect of, "Shouldn't I as their boss know when they are running a training?". The coworker was clear that Bob believes he is my boss

I immediately went to my direct supervisor and informed him of the situation and what I had heard. My boss confirmed that he was my direct report/boss and that Bob is definitely not my boss. I then made the comment to my actual boss to the effect of, "That's great, but Bob still thinks he's my boss and I don't think its my role to tell him that he is not". Following this, my boss essentially dropped the issue and gave me the impression that he will not be following up with Bob.

Question

The following is at least to me quite clear:

  1. My actual boss is not going to clarify management roles with Bob, as they are essentially equals

  2. Bob will continue to treat me as his subordinate as it is his assumption that I am

  3. It is not my role to tell Bob that he isn't by boss.

Questions: Are my assumptions faulty? How should I proceed? I value my relationship with Bob but also find his imperious inquiries taxing.

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    It looks like that for now it's just a couple of questions and a reported comment from a random coworker. Why not tackling the issue directly with Bob? When he asks for something you can just reply like "will discuss with my supervisor, xxx, on how to prioritize this. You will know that is ready when we will inform everyone" or anything that makes clear who is your supervisor and that he doesn't have any special right on the outputs/deliverables of your department.
    – nicola
    Commented May 16 at 6:11
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    Is there any particular reason you have not talked informally with bob yet? Commented May 16 at 12:29
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    "It is not my role to tell Bob that he isn't by boss." What makes you insist on that? If you get work requests based on wrong assumptions, it seems perfectly adequate to clear up or at least inquire about the misconception. Commented May 16 at 17:35
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    @MisterMiyagi Presumably because it's a somewhat awkward conversation, and most people don't love having those. It's probably still the easiest solution in this case.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 17 at 12:27
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    Do you have something like a matrix or project organisation? These tend to complicate the question of who is who's boss (maybe not formally, but definitely in a more informal usage of the word "boss").
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 17 at 12:34

7 Answers 7

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Nothing he has done suggests he "thinks he's your boss"

  1. "When are you going to get product X to me?" Doesn't seem like he's acting like your boss, if your job is to get the product, and Bob needs the product to do his job, that's a pretty fair question regardless of hierarchy; he's your internal customer for that product and is entitled to an update. If Bob is supposed to get the product himself, tell him "you need to get it yourself".

  2. "Is there anything important C-Level Boss should be made aware of?" again, seems like a fair question, if Bob is going to see C-Level boss soon, no harm in him asking if you want to pass along any messages.

  3. The 3rd-hand account of a conversation is really just gossip, ignore that.

So Bob hasn't done anything that actually suggests he thinks he is your 'boss', if and when he does, let him know he's not.

That it's not 'Your role' to tell him he's not your boss is a really odd take, he's not your boss, telling him a fact about the company structure as it pertains to your relationship with him is surely within your remit.

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    Your first 2 points are valid - they aren't positive evidence that Bob think's he's OP's boss (though they are circumstantially consisent with that). But ignoring an explicit conversation in which Bob refers to himself as OP's boss is silly. This isn't a court; there's no "Objection: hearsay". If you have 2nd hand evidence that Bob think's he's OP's boss, and also have circumstantial evidence supporting that evidence. Then it's entirely reasonable to take actions on the basis that it's (likely) true.
    – Brondahl
    Commented May 16 at 15:12
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    @Brondahl But the conversation as written does NOT say that Bob thinks he is OP's boss. It merely suggests that Bob thinks that the OP should have spoken to his actual boss., without defining who Bob thinks that boss is.
    – MikeB
    Commented May 16 at 15:26
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    @MikeB Apologies for not being very clear. The circumstance was that my coworker was asked by Bob (who is also in a team lead position) Why Bob, as the boss was not informed by me that I was holding a training. Commented May 16 at 16:12
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    @LeakyAquitard Bob might be referring to him as the boss to the people that OP trained, not to OP himself. If my staff was taken away for training, I would like to know about it, whether I'm the trainer's boss or the trainee's boss. Really need to assume less malice here. It'll make things go easier. Even IF Bob really does think he's OP boss, he's not! Bob is just going to put his own foot in his mouth at some point when he does something stupid, so just ignore it.
    – Nelson
    Commented May 17 at 1:19
  • If Bob tries to assign you a task, for example, or some other form of direct management -- that would be the time to point out that he is not your manager, <direct manager> is. Or if he does something truly underhanded, like going to a higher level manager with complaints about your performance. Otherwise, I would suggest to ignore it. If he directly says to you something about being your boss, you can also say something.
    – Basya
    Commented May 19 at 12:43
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How much damage are Bob's actions causing you or can cause you?

That is the question you need to answer yourself. That answer will determine how strong of a response or level of action you need to do. If he can cause you to be fired or get a bad performance review would require a higher level of action than if he can only whine and complain.

If Bob can ruin your job or make it a living hell, then you need make this your boss' problem too. Managers generally do not like it when other managers try to poach or order their employees around. The goal would be to get your supervisor to think that Bob is trying to take their people or job. This is typically done by framing Bob's actions in a way that it shows how they are harming your supervisor and not how it is harming you.

With that said, in your case I do not think that level of action is required.

It is not my role to tell Bob that he isn't by boss.

There are ways to tell someone that they are not your boss without saying it. For example asking leading questions:

Bob: Hey I need you to work on this item for project Y.

You: Have you run this past [Name of your direct supervisor]?

This puts Bob in a situation where he needs to either state outright that he has authority to order you around or has to step back. If Bob does try to push through and order you to do something then you respond diplomatically with something along the lines of:

You: I will need to run this past [Name of your direct supervisor] first since I am currently working on task H which is my highest priority.

Alternatively force them to go through your supervisor. To take one of your examples:

When are you going to get product X to me?

You: I am sorry I was under the impression that I was supposed to turn it over to [direct supervisor]. I can let [direct supervisor] know that you need it too.

One of the other side benefits of forcing Bob to go through your supervisor is it helps your supervisor know the full extent of your workload, and make sure you are not getting over tasked.

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This tactic works for a lot of office politics.

Put communication on record.

If Bob is asking for status update, send him one, CC your actual boss.

It really isn't YOUR problem that Bob is pretending to be your supervisor, but your supervisor's problem, so loop him in on it and your actual boss can decide what to do.

What you need to do is to give Bob the opportunity to shove that foot in his mouth as early as possible, so he'll know to pull it out.

I've had plenty of people pretend to be my boss (software developer). When they make an unreasonable verbal request, I put it in an email saying that this project is being started, tell my actual boss that my time is being diluted, and project delays need to be coordinated by the managers. These fake bosses seem to just disappear when they know you put down written records of their verbal requests.

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  • Bob's too cute to get caught like that, I feel.
    – Trunk
    Commented May 17 at 9:14
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    @Trunk, when you give a clown the opportunity to shoot himself in the foot, you are frequently going to be amazed when they actually do it. Give him that opportunity. Worst case, he sees the trap coming and avoids it, which is what happens if you don't give him the gun and bullet. All other outcomes are better. Commented May 17 at 14:28
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It is not my role to tell Bob that he isn't by boss.

Technically, true.

On the other hand, if you want to take on leadership roles in the future, this is a great learning opportunity! Good managers don't delegate unpleaseant conversations upwards, they fix problems.

So, think hard about what you want to say. Then step outside your comfort zone, grab a coffee with Bob, tell him what's on your mind, and listen to what he has to say.

What's the worst that could happen?


A commentor asked for some guidance on what to say, so here's how I'd approach that conversation: I'd start with "trusted coworker"'s assessment that "Bob [is] upset [...] for not informing him that I was putting on a training for a customer". Explain that you found this confusing, that, as far as you know, you don't report to Bob, that you value a good personal and working relationship with Bob, and that you'd like to clear up any misunderstandings about your roles. Then you shut up and listen to what he has to say.

Why do we start with hearsay? Because there's two ways that Bob could react:

  1. Bob claims that "trusted coworker" must have misunderstood him. That's fine. If Bob is aware that his beavior was out of line, this allows both of you to retreat from the conversion without "losing face". But now he knows that you know that he pretended to be your boss and that you are not OK with it.

  2. Bob explains why he thinks that he should be considered your boss. If this happens, listen to what he has to say with an open mind. Ask questions. Maybe he has a point. Maybe he really needs to "get product X" from you to continue with his work. Maybe your C-level boss actually asked him to get a status update from you and/or gave him the impression that he is your boss. If appropriate, explain that your boss sees this differently and work with Bob to find a solution that works for both of you. If what he says surprises you and you need time to think about it, it's perfectly fine to say so and arrange for a follow-up meeting.

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  • 2
    "What's the worst that could happen?" Bob twists OP's words and tries to cause issues for them?
    – ave
    Commented May 17 at 10:10
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    @ave "Bob twists OP's words and tries to cause issues for them" is a danger that is basically always present whenever there is a hint of staff conflict. Given that OP's relationship to Bob sounds decent enough in general, I think a friendly, albeit slightly awkward, conversation between colleagues about a perceived misunderstanding seems like the best way forward indeed.
    – xLeitix
    Commented May 17 at 12:31
  • You're not wrong, but if your suggestion to OP is "have a conversation", some guidance on what to say/ask would go a long way towards setting up OP for success. Commented May 19 at 3:58
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    @LastStar007: Good point, done.
    – Heinzi
    Commented May 19 at 8:29
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I really like JeffUK's response here, and I'd like to add on to that. Your boss heard you out, but chose not to get involved. Why not? Your boss sees this as a growth opportunity for you.

Now, in this case you mentioned, you ran to your boss with a story that you learned of by hearsay. Bob didn't approach you with any conflict directly. You took someone's story, and ran with it. It didn't affect business operations, but you still wasted your boss's time on it. That's why your boss didn't take further action, because the boss recognized that you were REACTING emotionally. Please don't make this a habit. Again, it's a growth opportunity.

Any time it is CLEAR that Bob is overstepping and you have DIRECT knowledge, there is an opportunity for you to say, "I'm taking marching orders (directions) from [your boss' name], and if you have concerns, you're free to speak with him." Other than that, you're going to have to learn how to not allow hearsay to get under your skin.

I've been in similar situations, and I find that sometimes I need to go clear my head, take a walk, or talk to a trusted friend for a sanity-check before I respond.

Good luck!

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... I offset my regular full-time position duties with one shift every week in which I was in charge of the entire facility's operations as they pertain to my specialty. Let's call this once a week shift's title as, "Supervisor". I trained many additional Supervisors who would take the shifts I didn't work.

To be honest, I just don't understand this. Is it a factory or what ? If we could just be clear on the situation it would help us all see how relations should be.

Generally, however, I think you should have acted at the very first meeting where Bob's tone/manner suggested he either saw himself as your boss or as your challenging equal.

It's clear that when a challenge is made before other people then it has to be met with conviction right there and then before those others.

All this is exacerbated by the vagueness of your organization's structure, e.g 'special' role created with a high level of autonomy and possibly intentional power vacuums into which middle managers may assume authority without official sanction.

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[…] Bob has left me with the impression that he believes he is my manager. Saying things like, "When are you going to get product X to me?" or "Is there anything important C-Level Boss should be made aware of?" This suspicion was confirmed tonight, when [he] said something to my coworker to the effect of, "Shouldn't I as their boss know when they are running a training?"

There are basically three possibilities here:

  1. There has been a misunderstanding, and Bob genuinely believes that he's supposed to be your boss (and that you're simply undermining his authority by refusing to keep him in the loop and ignoring his instructions).

  2. Bob knows he's not officially your boss, but your organizational hierarchy is vague enough (or Bob is delusional enough) for Bob to believe that by acting like he's your boss (but without actually claiming that directly in front of anyone who might contradict him) he can actually become your boss, at least in fact if not in name.

  3. The misunderstanding is on your (and your anonymous coworker's) side: Bob isn't actually trying to act as your boss, but his department simply has legitimate needs from yours and he believes it's appropriate for him to contact you directly about them instead of going through your supervisor. (I'm including this possibility mostly for completeness, since others have suggested it.)

Your own assumption seems to be closest to option 2 above, and indeed the direct remarks from Bob to you that you've quoted support it (or perhaps option 3). However, if your coworker has reported Bob's words to them correctly, that actually makes me lean a bit more towards option 1 — it would be very bold for Bob to outright say he's your boss, even to a third party, if he knows he's not (and hasn't yet established a clear pattern of acting as your de facto boss). The risk of those words getting to you (as indeed seems to have happened) and backfiring is just too high.

Ultimately, the way to resolve this situation will depend on which of these is actually the case. The problem, of course, is that you don't have enough information yet to determine this for certain. As such, you'll need an initial approach that will get you closer to finding out what's actually going on without too much risk of bad consequences in any of these cases.

Going to your actual supervisor and getting them to confirm that Bob indeed isn't your boss was a good first step, in that it let you rule out option 4 (of Bob actually being made your boss without you realizing it). It doesn't seem to have led to any further progress, since your supervisor apparently isn't willing to discuss the issue with Bob on your behalf (or at least they haven't promised you that they would do so).


So, how should you proceed?

The following is at least to me quite clear:

  1. My actual boss is not going to clarify management roles with Bob, as they are essentially equals

  2. Bob will continue to treat me as his subordinate as it is his assumption that I am

  3. It is not my role to tell Bob that he isn't by boss.

Questions: Are my assumptions faulty? How should I proceed? I value my relationship with Bob but also find his imperious inquiries taxing.

Under these circumstances, I would question your assumption 3 and suggest that, since your supervisor hasn't indicated their willingness to do so, it might in fact be time for you to have a chat with Bob about this yourself.

Obviously, it matters a lot how you do this. Confronting Bob in the middle of a meeting and yelling "You're not my boss, I don't take orders from you!" is… probably not the optimal approach, either for getting the issue solved with minimum drama or for preserving your friendly relationship with Bob.

(Even that might be better than just seething and doing nothing, though.)

What I'd actually suggest, however, is that the next time Bob says or does something that makes you feel like he's trying to boss you around, you say you have some concerns and ask him if he'd have time for a brief one-on-one discussion after the meeting (or whatever you're currently doing).

Then find a private place to have that one-on-one discussion and explain the situation (and your feelings about it) to Bob, starting with the assumption that it's probably all been a misunderstanding of some kind:

  • You could start simply by laying your cards on the table and telling Bob that you've lately felt as if he's sometimes making demands from you like he was your supervisor, even though (as far as you know) he isn't.

  • Make sure to mention that you've already confirmed with your actual supervisor that Bob isn't your boss and that you have no direct reporting responsibilities to him (assuming you did confirm that, too).

    This both deflects the interpersonal conflict (as Bob now has to take it up with your supervisor if they disagree), demonstrates that you have someone else on your side and it's not just your word against Bob's, and crucially clears the air just in case your supervisor in fact did already have a chat with Bob about this (or might do so at some later point) even though they didn't tell you that they would.

  • Ask Bob what he believes your respective roles and reporting responsibilities are. Be prepared for this to be (slightly or completely) different from what you think is the case.

    If the differences are major, don't try to argue the matter directly on the spot, since that again just puts your personal authority against Bob's. Instead, just iterate your own perception of the situation (to make sure you both understand where you disagree) and suggest that you should seek to figure out together what your actual designated roles and responsibilities are. In particular, if you believe that there's a factual disagreement between you and Bob about the organizational hierarchy that could be answered by consulting an official org chart or asking someone higher up than both of you, by all means do so.

    However, try not to play the "let's ask someone higher up" card on minor issues that the people higher up may have left open on purpose for you and Bob to sort out between the two of you. Not only does that risk making the people you ask feel like you're wasting their time with trivial arguments, but the answer you get back might be just a rubberstamp of whatever Bob (or you) suggests the answer should be. (In the worst case, that could actually end up making Bob officially your boss!) Or, if you really want to take that risk, at least try to sound like the more reasonable and solution-focused party and offer a clear and reasonable sounding way forward for senior management to approve.

  • Make it clear (if that's indeed the case) that if Bob and his department need anything from you, you'd prefer that they go through your supervisor. Be prepared for some pushback, though, as Bob may legitimately see this as adding unnecessary delays and bureaucracy.

    As a compromise, you can suggest letting Bob request some things directly from you (if you feel that's reasonable) as long as he also keeps your supervisor in the loop e.g. by CC-ing the requests to him. (If he promises to do so but forgets, do remember to forward the requests to your supervisor yourself!) Another option could be to suggest a three-way meeting with you, Bob and your supervisor to explicitly define the scope of what Bob is allowed to request directly from you and how the extra workload from such requests should be tracked.

If there's indeed been an actual misunderstanding on Bob's part, this approach should hopefully go a long way towards clarifying it. As a side effect, it can also let Bob re-evaluate your perceived behavior towards him in a new light, hopefully clearing out any resentment that may have been building up on his side.

On the other hand, if Bob actually has been trying to "expand his domain" and take on a supervisory role over you that he's not supposed to have, clearly laying out your respective roles and reporting responsibilities (make sure to write these down and get your supervisor and any other relevant parties to sign off on them!) eliminates the organizational ambiguity and makes it that much hard for him to keep doing so. And of course it also lets him know that you're aware of what he's trying and don't agree with it.

The same also goes even if Bob has just been trying to cut through what he sees as unnecessary red tape by bypassing your supervisor and making his request directly to you. In that case, what you really need to do is agree on a workflow that balances both of your goals, getting any necessary tasks done promptly while keeping your supervisor informed of your workload and not overloading you with extra unplanned work. Having a discussion like I suggested above is probably at least a good start on that.


Finally, I should note that my advice above is (in part) based on your claim that you and Bob "still get along very well" and that you value your relationship with him. Not only does a friendly and respectful relationship between you make it more likely for such a one-on-one discussion to work out well, but conversely, friendly and honest communication is also an essential ingredient for preserving any relationship.

Had your relationship with Bob already turned sour, I'd be more likely to suggest involving a third party as a mediator from the start. You might still want to do that if the one-on-one discussion doesn't go well, but in your situation I'd keep that as plan B.

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