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I’m accused of stepping on toes…

type illustration by franke james; elephant feet photo ©iStockphoto.com/GJS

Hello Office Politics Team!

My question is about stepping on the toes of co-workers and the higher-ups. I have been very successful in my position of a division director for four years. Recently, it seems that decisions I have made or questions I have asked are viewed as “stepping on others toes.” My supervisor vacillates between telling me all decisions must go through him to just make the decision. How should I handle this situation?

Thank you!


erika andersen

Dear Walking-on-eggshells,

Let’s talk about “stepping on toes.” People use that phrase a lot – and rarely explain what they mean. Generally, when people say that someone “steps on others’ toes”, they mean that person seems over-focused on what they need and prefer, or what will help them to succeed – rather than what’s best for others or for the team. In other words – that you act in ways that focus on the benefit to you, rather than the benefit to others.

As you know from what your boss has said to you, this is not seen as a good thing! So then, how do you become someone who avoids other people’s toes? I find that the most useful approach is simply to be conscious of and consider others’ rights, needs and constraints before acting. People who are conscious of others’ rights don’t habitually do things that undermine, inconvenience, or intrude upon them. For instance, a salesperson who respected a fellow salesperson’s rights wouldn’t call on her clients without getting her permission. A boss who respected his assistant’s rights wouldn’t commit her time and effort on a major project for another person without checking with her first. An employee wouldn’t miss a deadline in order to change the format of an important report without checking with his team members.

Looking at these examples, you might want to reflect on those situations where your boss has said that you’re “stepping on other people’s toes,” and see whether you might have overstepped the boundaries of someone else’s rights. It might be hard to be objective about this: we usually have reasons that seem legitimate to us when we do something that interferes with or ignores someone else’s efforts, responsibilities, or authority. But just think about it for awhile – and decide, in retrospect, if you could have behaved in a way that was more respectful of that person’s rights. And the next time you’re in a situation where there’s a potential conflict between your goals, needs or point of view and someone else’s – take a moment to think about how to find a solution that works for both of you.

Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.


Erika Andersen, Author

Erika Andersen is the author of Growing Great Employees, newly released in paperback, which is a Kirkus Reviews recommended business book for 2007. Erika Andersen and her colleagues at Proteus International, the company she founded in 1990, offer practical approaches for individuals and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for-future. Much of Erika’s recent work has focused on vision and strategy, executive coaching, and culture change. She has served as consultant and advisor to the CEOs and senior executives of corporations like MTV Networks, Molson Coors Brewing, Rainbow Media Holdings, Union Square Hospitality Group, and Comcast Corporation. Erika is an inaugural author of the Penguin Speakers Bureau, and she has been quoted in the New York Times, Industry Week, Investors’ Business daily, and Fortune.

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