The other day, my boss approached me in private and had a very surprising talk with me - a talk about how important it is for me and my co-worker to go to him for help, to work together where we can, but explicitly to not 'order' the other co-worker to do something.

The talk basically implied heavily that I had offended my co-worker by ordering her to do something, that she complained to him, and that I should take into consideration how offensive that might be.

Which was shocking to me, because I'm extremely non-confrontational, very unassertive, and basically the last person I'd ever suspect of trying to be assertive or overreaching in authority.

Yet, clearly, I offended someone by overstepping my bounds.

Of course I can't ask him to clarify what I did due to confidentiality (for all I know, it was something I did to him, not her, but I can't confirm or deny that), but I don't want to be that sort of person.

But, I could see myself accidentally making the same mistake, since I'm not very good at reading social cues, and might be leaving out a 'nicety' without even realizing it.

I also can't exactly ask what it was I said/did wrong, because by law my boss is not allowed to report what my co-worker says under confidentiality, and I'm not supposed to even know that my co-worker complained about anything under the same, so even asking her about it could get my boss into trouble.

How can I keep myself from overreaching my authority with co-workers?

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    What does confidentiality have to do with it? Your bosstells you to stop doing something, but can't give an example? Did you tell him how difficult this is for you since you can't think of any instance of bossing someone?
    – user8365
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 12:12
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    @JeffO An example will give a strong indication of who complained, and someone may not see complaints about him/her in a particularly positive light, or may just view complaining negatively, thus the complainer might get the short end of the stick. So ... confidentiality. Commented May 7, 2014 at 12:29
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    @Dukeling - I get that, but I'm starting to feel like the accuser is a coward and may interpret a suggestion as an order when most people wouldn't.
    – user8365
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 12:38
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    @JeffO Same feelings here - taking someone aside for a 'word' about a non specific event is the height of stupidity.
    – Dan
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 12:56
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    I don't have a clue as to what exactly you did or said to offend her - that's OK. Unfortunately neither do you, and that's not OK. You need to talk to either your manager or to her and extract from them just what you did or said that was offensive. Because if you don't know, you'll do it again and you'll do it unknowingly and you'll face the shogun's wrath again. Corrective action starts with you knowing just what it is that you have to correct. "Over-reaching my authority with co-workers" is a meaningless general statement. Get the specifics of what you said and did and get back to us. Commented May 7, 2014 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


Assuming that you didn't give orders, most likely reason that colleague felt like you're "overstepping bounds" is that you were giving them advice.

It is safer to avoid giving advice to your peers, unless you are:

  1. either directly asked (solicited) to give it
  2. or publicly and officially given (delegated) an authority to provide advice on particular topics

Giving advice is really slippery road, it implies that you know better than someone, better enough to guide them. This may be perceived negatively.

  • I broke my nose more than once on stuff like that in the past and I strongly recommend you to thread carefully here. Side note it has been especially painful when combined with Dunning-Kruger effect either on the side of those whom I advised or on my own side.

When you feel like your colleague is doing something wrong, but are not 200% sure that you understand why they are doing so, consider simply asking them about this.

Make your best effort to avoid pretending that you know better and instead, focus exclusively on trying to learn about their reasons. This approach is considered reasonable between co-workers (unless it happens too often to be qualified as distracting / annoying).

  • If done right, above approach may even help establish mutual trust and credibility such that misunderstanding like what you describe won't have a chance to happen.

If you believe that your colleague is just plain wrong and it's not worth learning why they are making a mistake, simply talk to your manager and raise this concern.

Resolving concerns between their team members is one of the core responsibilities of a manager and they will take it from there.

For the sake of completeness, in latter case it may happen that manager agrees with your points and explicitly delegates you the authority to guide / give an advice on the involved matter, but this would be a whole different story.

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    "It is safer to avoid giving advice to your peers"... I can't disagree with this more. If someone has a better suggestion than me then not telling me for fear I won't like being given advice is just plain stupid. I work with adults and we're really not afraid to speak up and be told that we're wrong, whether it's the advice giver or receiver. It's a really good way for people to learn. I accept that this won't be the case in all industries or companies but to start with a default position of no one is allowed to question anything is really quite depressing.
    – Ben
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 21:52
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    @Ben what you describe works only when there's mutual trust and understanding between colleagues (see "establish mutual trust and credibility" bullet in my answer). This is not the case in the situation asked about: "I'm not supposed to even know that my co-worker complained about anything" - giving unsolicited advice in a context like that has cost me a couple of career issues in the past
    – gnat
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 21:58
  • It certainly works when there's mutual trust (you don't need credibility in order to ask whether doing something a different way would be better), you don't require much though. It's the trust that you will be treated as an adult if you ask a question and that you will treat the person you're asking the same. As I say, this certainly isn't true everywhere, it's not even true everywhere I've worked; but being open and honest with co-workers and mutually feeding back is not something that should be cast aside so readily. (this could also be country dependent - worker protections differ etc).
    – Ben
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 22:04
  • @Ben I believe that one needs to be open and honest with self to start with. Giving unsolicited advice (also called "guide" in linked Wikipedia article) to someone you don't know well enough is neither open nor honest (as opposed to openly asking questions and honestly trying to learn about how peers think)
    – gnat
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 22:11

You're trying to solve some problem, but you actually don't know what the problem is. It's like trying to find something when you don't know what it is that you're looking for.

I don't see why you consider it wrong to ask your boss what mistake you've actually made. It's already strange that your boss didn't say it in the first place. By not asking you could have left the impression that either you already know what you've done wrong or you don't care enough to try to find out. In either case if you do the same thing again (which you well might do since you actually don't know where you're wrong, if you are wrong at all), your boss will think that you don't care to correct your mistakes.

Your first step is to find out what you did to offend your colleague. It might even turn out to be some misunderstanding between you. If you actually did offend her, apologize and let it go.

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    +1 that the OP should ask the boss for clarification. If for whatever reason it is impossible, I would suggest that the OP send an email to all co-workers, in which he tells them what has happened (the conversation with the boss), explains that it might have been misunderstanding as he had no intention to give orders to anybody, apologizes for the undeliberate offense, and asks the co-workers to let him know if he appears as being bossy again. Commented May 7, 2014 at 13:12
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    Unfortunately, due to worker confidentiality, I literally cannot do this. My co-worker confided this to my boss in the strictest confidence. And, I really doubt that I could approach her about it personally given that it's supposed to be confidential.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 13:16
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    @Zibbobz, I don't see a reason to disclose the person's name but not what she's complained about. But in any case, I think it's worth letting your boss know that you don't understand what exactly you've done wrong.
    – superM
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 13:28
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    @superM He didnt' actually disclose her name, but he didn't really have a choice in the matter - it is just too easy to tell who he's talking about. And, I did mention this, and he sympathized, but he couldn't actually tell me anything more.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 13:29
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    This is a no-win situation for you as it stands. "You did something wrong... fix it"... .. . Um... okay. How can you fix "something"? What is something? How can you not do it again if you don't know? I'd ask for a meeting with your boss and his boss or HR. There has to be SOMETHING that can be said to clear what line you crossed.
    – WernerCD
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 19:51

Above all, make sure in your dealings that you are clear what decisions you are leaving to the other person. That is, all of them except where you've mutually agreed some division of responsibility that makes you the decision-maker on certain kinds of shared work.

Specific things to watch out for:

  • Try not to phrase advice in the imperative. For example, the preceding sentence could be an order in some contexts and therefore could be taken as an order. Even more so if I'd said "do not phrase advice in the imperative".
  • Whatever level of politeness is expected, supply it regardless of whether you think it matters. So, if someone always comes to you saying, "I'm terribly sorry to trouble you but when you have a few minutes please would you mind doing X", where X is part of your job to do when requested, then you should employ similar circumlocutions with them when asking them to do something that's their job to do when requested.
  • Be aware that phrasing something as a request doesn't free it from being interpreted like an instruction. "Could you do this for me" might sound like an attempt to delegate even if what you mean is "aaargh, I'm desperately busy this morning, and I won't have time to do everything, but getting this off my plate would make my life much easier". It depends on a lot of things including the task, the way you say it, the context, the relationship you have with the person, and each of your personalities.

Unfortunately since you're in a situation where this person is reading your advice/suggestions/requests/statements of fact as orders when you don't intend them that way, you just have to assume for the time being that your words will not be interpreted reasonably. I can't tell whether the other person is being reasonable or not, it's just as likely to me that you're being unreasonable, but whoever is "wrong" about what you're saying, the fact is that your boss requires what you're saying to change.

I'm not very good at reading social cues

Quite possibly neither is the other person, so you probably both need to be more careful about what you read and what you send.

Perhaps you could ask your boss to watch carefully for examples that he can observe personally and therefore can report to you without confidentiality issues. If you both acknowledge that this is a tricky issue to solve then hopefully he's willing to go a bit out of his way to help you solve it.

  • +1 The OP could start any sentence about a work to be done by a colleague with the phrase "I am not giving you orders but would you like to do ..." or "I am not telling you what to do but ..." And of course should do this to both of his co-workers, otherwise the sensitive one might complain again. Commented May 8, 2014 at 8:40

Put it back on your boss - if he wants you to go to him, then every time you need something done - menial or otherwise - that's the responsibility of a co-worker, forward it to your boss instead. Since the end result is all that concerns you, it's no skin off your back to whom the request it made. He can either take care of every request himself, or address the crux of the problem himself once he realizes he's created an asinine policy.

  • A little rough, though it'll help in the short term. Unfortunately it's not really a policy he enforces. It's more a state regulation that we can't ignore.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 16:49

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