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BOUNDARIES

My colleagues rely on me too much. How can I encourage them to branch out?

Scott Steinberg
By Scott Steinberg

Work Etiquette Columnist

Q: I’m so good at what I do that colleagues keep coming to me for help instead of tackling tasks themselves, which would give them opportunities to learn, build relationships, and grow. How can I encourage colleagues to take more initiative themselves?

Dear Super Star,

Consider yourself flattered: Colleagues clearly consider you to be great at what you do. But as you’ve discovered, excelling on the job can be a blessing and a curse, unless you learn to set some helpful boundaries up-front.

Mind you, doing so doesn’t always come naturally to those of us whom aim to please and be liked. And certainly, we all want to help our colleagues out. But it’s important to remember that we are all operating with limited time and resources. Actively encouraging peers to be more proactive is a must in the modern working world, especially if you’re playing with a tight schedule.

To start with, remember that “no” is not a dirty word, and you don’t have to feel bad about saying it, even more so if you can say it in the right way.

For example, we all know what it’s like to be under the gun. A simple “Apologies, I’d love to help, but I’m heads-down on a number of time-sensitive projects at the moment” or “OMG, that sounds like a great project… unfortunately I just don’t have the bandwidth to take it on right now” can help set relatable expectations with others. But any time that you say no, you should also say yes to helping others find ways to help themselves, by also offering a helpful suggestion, tidbit of advice, or piece of insight that can ultimately help them accomplish their task.

For instance, you might couch subtle hints on how to solve a challenge in the form of leading questions (“But have you tried reaching out to Jim? This is right in his wheelhouse”; “Did you check our new plug-and-play accounting tools yet though? They’re great for this type of task”; or “You might want to ping the digital marketing team—I know they’re working on something similar.”) Clever suggestions can help you politely steer your colleagues in more productive directions.

Alternately, you might suggest making an introduction or two (“Do you know Jane Welles? She’s been doing research into similar subjects”) or looking at a useful resource (“I don’t know the answer off-hand, but our customer service team recently put together a FAQ that answers many frequently asked questions along these lines, which might come in handy”).

Alternately, in the case that someone comes to you for help, but seems stumped, you might ask some guiding questions.

  • Have you tried X/Y/Z, by chance? (Googling it, checking this market research report, checking in with the IT, team, etc.)
  • What do you think the best solution is? (You might offer additional prompts as needed, such as, “Is this something HR might be able to help out with,” or “You might find answers to on our online employee learning portal”)
  • Did you try running it by [insert individual, department, or team name here] yet?
  • What is the client/team suggesting?

Of course, entire books have been written on taking control of your time and signaling to others that you won’t always be available for them to fall back on. Some common suggestions include:

  • Setting specific office hours when you’re available and closing your door and turning off your phone’s ringer when you’re not
  • Putting away or out-of-office messages on your email and only responding to correspondence at predetermined times each day
  • Turning off chat programs when you need to stay focused and uninterrupted

Ultimately, success here comes from (a) not being readily on-call anytime (b) teaching colleagues to be more thoughtful (c) taking command of your own schedule and (d) encouraging more proactivity on peers’ part. Of course, helplessness and indecision are often symptoms of insecurity. The more you let your associates know that their work is trusted, give colleagues the authority and room to make decisions, and reinforce smart decision-making with praise and recognition, the more you’ll help create and reinforce a workplace culture of self-sufficiency.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

Do you have a workplace etiquette question? Submit to Scott by emailing work@qz.com.