How To Gain Respect By Drawing A Line


Many years ago, in a company far, far away, I transferred into a new department. From the get-go, I liked all of my co-workers, with one exception – his name was “Walt.”  Our journey on the road to a productive work relationship was a bumpy one filled with power plays, tension and avoidance.

The story below is not intended to malign Walt. He was a very professional, smart and talented individual. Rather, my goal in telling this tale is to share with you a lesson I learned about setting boundaries.

Shortly after my arrival in the department, tensions began to surface between me and Walt. I suspected that we were engaged in a power struggle of some sort, but for what type of “power?”  We were peers and to my way of thinking, we had equal amounts of power within the team structure. Not being a pushover, I felt the struggle and began to push back whenever he tried to get the upper hand.

It all came to a head during one meeting in which Walt and I convened in a conference room to discuss a project we were working on.  We had each brought several large reference binders into the room. As we stood up to leave after the meeting, I gathered my armload of materials. It was at this point that Walt picked up his coffee cup and moved, with otherwise empty hands, toward the door. He nodded in the direction of the binders he had carried into the meeting and tossed off, “Hey, grab those books for me, will ya?” and then turned to exit the conference room.

Now, here’s what was going through my head, “I am not your personal assistant, and no, I will NOT pick up your stuff!” Instead, I blurted something only slightly less severe, “What? Are your arms broken?” Walt turned and stammered, “Well, I only….um. Geez!” A tense silence ensued.  Then he offered, “I didn’t mean anything by that, I just thought. . .” He trailed off. I countered with, “I think you are perfectly capable of carrying your own stuff back to your office.” Which he in fact did do immediately after I stormed out of the conference room.

I’d love to say that this outburst provided the catalyst for a meaningful conversation between two colleagues about respect and boundaries. In a perfect world, that’s what would have happened, but instead we each acted as if the whole blow-up hadn’t occurred. Yeah, yeah, I know, “avoid the co-worker” isn’t exactly high-quality interpersonal advice. But here’s the upside – I drew a line in the sand.  Drawn somewhat clumsily, yes, but drawn nonetheless. Prior to this, either I was inadvertently signaling to Walt that he could push me around or he was testing to see how far he could push me. In either case, from that point on, the power struggles stopped. We were able to work on getting to know each other’s talents and build upon that knowledge to create a more productive working relationship.

Once we stopped trying to prove who was more “powerful” (or smarter or better-liked by the boss or whatever the heck we were trying to prove), we were able to bridge the substantial gap in our affinity for one another. I discovered that Walt and I shared a similar educational background, having even attended the same undergraduate program at the same university. This led to us “talking shop” about human performance technology which in turn helped me learn a bit about Walt and his family.

Did Walt and I end up becoming the best of buddies? No. But we did learn to respect what each other brought to the team and that strengthened our team’s overall performance.

If a colleague is pushing you around, don’t be afraid to draw your own line in the sand. It’s tempting to wait for that “right” time, thinking you need a well-rehearsed, professional spiel in which to present your case.  That’s great in a perfect world, but sometimes perfection doesn’t cut it.  Sometimes a less-than-perfect yet direct route gets the job done just as well.

Photo credit iStockphoto

About the Author

Jennifer Miller

For 20+ years, Jennifer V. Miller has been helping professionals “master the people equation” to maximize their personal influence. A former HR generalist and training manager, she now advises executives on how to create positive, productive workplace environments. She is the founder and Managing Partner of SkillSource and blogs at The People Equation. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferVMiller.


Jennifer V. Miller

I’m glad you found this helpful. And yes, these sorts of power plays can indeed be subtle. Although in this case, it was fairly obvious. To me, at least 🙂


Wow, thank you so much for this article. It really helps me to see how I might have been targeted for this kind of subtle but harmful workplace bullying. This kind of situation would have escalated I think had you not drawn bundaries straightaway. I would have been the type of person to just go and ahead and grab them for him, thinking I was being helpful, and not really taking it to heart too much. It is all too easy to just grab the folders and think nothing of it, because it’s so subtle. This though is the wrong reaction, and possibly the type of reaction that has caused me to be a target of people like Walt so many times in the past. It’s true that they push you in the beginning to test you out. I need to reflect now on my own responses, and boundary setting at work, using your experience as a catalyst. Thanks Jennifer 😉

Jennifer V. Miller

@Working Girl,

I’m just now seeing your comment– think it was caught up in the Comment Limbo somewhere 🙂

Thanks for your support. Thanksfully, I’m even better now than I used to be at setting boundaries early. It definitely makes a working relationship go more smoothly.

Jennifer V. Miller

What an astute observation of human nature! One definition of “power” is “the ability or official capacity to exercise control; authority.” To answer your question- “Do you think that people may try to exert power when they are feeling that they have not gotten the power they want?” Yes, I have seen this tactic used by colleagues. When people feel somehow denied their authority in an official capacity— they will often seek other avenues to exercise some form of control.

Here is a link to an excellent article that outlines the “7 Bases of Power” which describes the many ways in which people can use power to achieve their goals:

Judy Lindenberger

I have found that you can’t always get someone else to alter their way of thinking but you can, as you say in your article, set boundaries. Your story reminded me of a few situations I’ve encountered as a volunteer. One time, a committee chair scheduled regular meetings at a time when she knew that one of the handful of committee members could not make it . Then, when asked, she refused to change the time of the meetings. That situation was ultimately resolved by a higher up but the two people, to my knowledge, have never had a heart to heart. This situation happened shortly after the committee chair lobbied for, but was not elected to, a top leadership position. Do you think that people may try to exert power when they are feeling that they have not gotten the power they want?

Jennifer V. Miller


Thanks for your feedback. I agree that action can be very powerful for moving a situation forward. Sometimes that forward momentum is painful in the moment, but eventually gets us to where we want to be.

Jay Kuhns

I love this post. One of the messages I’ve shared with employees for years is that when they confront someone, they are not trying to win an academy award with their “performance.” The important thing is that they take the necessary step and DO something. Action is almost always better than doing nothing, even if it isn’t worthy of a gold statue.

working girl

I am always amazed by people who take such a petty approach to a power struggle, such as asking someone to carry something. Maybe they read a book on bending others to your will in six easy steps or something like that. Although I admit I usually carry way too much stuff around and often have to ask others to give ME a hand. But I it doesn’t make me feel more powerful, just like I’m carrying lots of stuff. 🙂 Good for you for setting boundaries early on.


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