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How to Manage Power-Mongering Coworkers

You can stand your ground.

There’s one in every office. The hotshot: the guy who has an exalted view of his own opinions and claims all great ideas are his; or the woman who lets everyone know she’s the “go to” person on…well, everything. They pursue a land grab and overstep your boundaries with no authority as they attempt to climb the corporate ladder. Despite all their blustering, however, you can mitigate all the disruption.

Signs of a Power-Hungry Coworker

The tell-tale signs of overly ambitious employees are abundant. They initiate projects to peers or may even attempt to do so with those in other departments. They’re blind to the rules of engagement. At meetings, they’ll tell peers or even more senior coworkers, “That's a great idea, why don’t you take the lead on it?”

The power-mongering worker can get the boss’s attention and, unfortunately, can be encouraged by senior managers who see a personal advantage to promoting the employee’s status. This authority-grabber can help build the boss’s fiefdom, leaving you in the dust. It’s lethal to coworkers and hurts the organization because they wield excessive power without oversight — until enough complaints emerge.

Who doesn’t want enthusiastic employees? If you get sucked in, you end up feeling like a doormat. Management may see your attention-hungry coworker as the ultimate go-getter, the leader of the pack, and a “can-do kinda person.”

The Fallout

In reality, this employee is an office tyrant in the making. Coworkers like this dampen the dedication of others behind the scenes — those doing the real work. As they make strides to dole out work, seldom do they also dole out credit (that is counterproductive to their agenda!)

And being that many companies today are matrix organizations, this behavior can slip through the cracks of the org chart.

In extreme cases, these wannabe success stories can bully others into feeling they must cooperate on certain projects — when in fact other employees are barely handling their own workloads. You may feel eclipsed by this star of the show, and because he’s the boss’s “chosen one,” you may feel that you have few options. Especially if you’ve stated your case, but the status quo remains the same. As long as things are perceived as running along smoothly, your boss may turn a blind eye to the misbehavior.

Take Your Power Back

The good news is that after enough people are on to the façade and come forth, the disruption becomes more transparent to management. That former behavior can dissipate in minutes.

Sometimes employees try to placate the power monger so they can ride on the coattails of their success. But they eventually find that they're only adding more fuel to the fire — and expending wasted energy. In time, it is likely that both you and management will realize that this solo flyer’s power is built on silt. It’s a case of the “Emperor has no clothes.” Here are some ways to re-establish control:

1. Diplomatically question their authority.

  • Don't be afraid to confront the ladder-climbing coworker and question further how and why it is that you're getting orders — or ask diplomatically if they’re aware of something that you’re not. Don't hesitate to ask them where their expertise or authority is coming from.
  • If you know they’re out of control, tell them that you appreciate their input and will take it under consideration.
  • Check with your boss before you agree to work on anything from a coworker who seems to hold "self-perceived" authority.

2. Speak up.

  • The sooner you speak to your real boss about the matter, the better off you are.
  • Don't be afraid to push back in meetings, questioning and clarifying roles and responsibilities, even if just for the record and to the benefit of others.
  • Rather than get caught up in what you think is useful inside information, don’t start schmoozing with “puffer fish” employees to theoretically advance your career. Stay focused. If their comments or directives are more fluff than substance, find ways to avoid them. And if you cross paths, you can politely diffuse their authority, or with, “Oh really? That's great,” or “Oops, sorry. I have a deadline to meet.”

3. Gather the forces.

  • There is power in numbers; talk to others and you’ll likely confirm that this person is a fantasy commander. Go to your mutual managers en force if your workflow is being disrupted.
  • If you find you're not being copied on emails where an action involving you is suggested or your comments or ideas are made public, ask to be. Conversely, if you’re listed on a team you had no intention of being on, respond immediately.
  • Clarity will always save you time and angst. If the situation goes beyond a mere self-promoter, find out the real agenda of the power-monger coworker — and how much they really impact your job.

Employees looking for shortcuts to the top at any expense are challenging. But with your high-road approach, you’ll cut out a lot of disruption, allowing you to thrive in your job.

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