Q: My boss' boss, "Abby," has gotten in the habit of asking me to help her, including taking on things that are actually other people's responsibility. While I don't mind helping out, it feels awkward and makes it hard for me to get my work done. My boss "Steve" seems oblivious. I can't really tell her to take a hike, but how can I push back effectively?
A: This is not just your problem to solve.
At some level, your boss needs to be an advocate for you when you're in an uncomfortable position with higher ups. Ask yourself if you've done all you can to get the support you need. If not, consider the reasons. You may be concerned about being considered a whiner or about having your reaction get back to Abby. If that's the case, ask yourself whether that's a realistic risk. If so, what does that say about the culture you're working in?
Also think about whether you have a general problem with setting limits. If you find that people are often asking too much of you — and you're going along with it — you might have a bit of "doormat syndrome" going. This isn't uncommon, and it is often fueled by a sense that people won't like you or will be angry if you set limits. If this rings true for you, take it seriously, because it can derail your ability to focus on yourself and the things that you want in life.
Taking a step back, look at your workplace culture as a whole. Are you sure that you're the only one with blurred lines? Especially if you're in a smaller organization, there may be a lot of cross-role activity. While that would be confusing, it has a different effect than if it's just you within your role. This would be prime territory for a broader conversation with your boss and the team.
Now step back again, and consider why Abby comes to you. Setting aside the possible doormat explanation, look at your skills, attitude, the quality of your work, and other positives. Then determine the outcome you'd like. If you like the types of tasks she brings, would you like to reframe your position? Or would you rather be able to maintain your current focus?
Once you're clear on all of this, it's time to go to your boss. It's only fair for him to give you clear direction. Let him tell you that your priority is to help her, even if it interferes with other deliverables. Or he should talk with her about the demands she is placing on your time. He also needs to be clarifying roles with her, and improving performance with your co-workers if they're falling short. Ideally, this would mitigate the need for you to push back on Abby in the moment, because that could potentially damage your relationship with her.
The remaining potential problem area is the effect this has on your relationship with co-workers. If you're hearing negatives from folks, let them know you're trying to clarify "who does what" but also remember that you are not responsible for their reactions.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.