How To Push Back Work On Their Rightful Owner

I learned over the years how important it is to know how to push work back on their rightful owner. Have you ever had a colleague trying to get you to do their job? It’s either because they think they can’t do it well whilst they know you can do it better, or just because they are lazy. Sometimes it’s because they are more senior than you and think you should just do whatever they tell you.

Well, if they are not in your direct line management, it is not for them to delegate work to you. You are within your rights to push work back to them and I share with you today my tips on how to do so in the right way.  

Why it is important to push work back on their rightful owner

Put very bluntly, it is important to push work back on their rightful owner because it is not your job to do theirs. While you are busy getting other people’s work done, you are not doing yours. So you could end up getting in trouble because your work isn’t done or working longer hours to get everything done.

You have been hired to do your job, not someone else’s. Otherwise, you would have been hired in their job.

Get things right from the start

When you start a new role, you won’t know the dynamics, the politics, and who is who. So it’s best to spend some time observing what is going on so you know who you are speaking to.

It’s also important to get clarification from your line manager as to what falls within your role and what doesn’t. And is there any grey area, such as: the other team should be doing this, but we help them because they are under-resourced / don’t have the right skills…

Once you know the rules it’s time to enforce them.

Be assertive

If you receive a request for work that should be with the person making the request, go back to them politely but firmly. You want to make sure that there is no doubt that you are not going to do the work.

I am an intellectual property lawyer. I am a subject matter expert and my colleagues from the legal and commercial functions can come to me with questions or for approval of certain terms. What I don’t do is review every single IP clause in every single contract because they have (or should have) the skills to do that themselves. I am here to help on the hard stuff, not the day-to-day stuff.

So when I receive an email asking to review a contract that clearly they have not reviewed themselves, my answer is a simple: “have you reviewed this and what are your thoughts?”. This reply leaves no doubt as to who should be doing the review.

If you are enjoying this article, you might enjoy this one too:  There Is A Difference Between Needing Help And Being Ready For Help by Oliver JR Cooper

Be polite when you push back

Regardless of the reason why your colleague is trying this on, there is no need to get emotional about it. So take a deep breath. If you need to do a quick meditation to bring yourself back to calm. You can follow along this meditation if necessary:  

Once you are calm again, draft your reply and ask yourself if you would be ok receiving it.

Mirror their request

I have already touched on that above. My technique is super simple. They say: “can you do X” and I reply “have you done X”?

There is no need to make this any more complicated than that.


Some people will try this again and again, like a child testing a boundary. If you want to assert yourself long term, you have to be consistent with your reply. Just keep going until they get it. It’s what I sometimes call training my colleagues.

What to do if it doesn’t work

Certain people will not take no for an answer. If you are up against someone more senior than you, it might be wise to check in with your line manager what the best way forward should be. It might be that a conversation needs to happen between this person and your boss.

With people who are at your level, you might want to have a conversation. There could be a reason why they are acting this way. Quite often I found it is a lack of knowledge or skill. When this is the case, I usually take the approach of coaching them and teaching them on the job. I effectively train them on the specific type of work as if they were a trainee solicitor under my supervision.

This takes a little bit of time, but it is worth it long term as, as they become more knowledgeable, they will require less and less of your time.     

How to push work back on their rightful owner – key take aways

  1. Get it right from the start
  2. Be assertive
  3. Be polite
  4. Mirror their request
  5. Repeat
  6. If they don’t take the hint, have an open conversation

Try these simple hacks and let me know how you get on

Do you have other tips on how to push work back on their rightful owner? What works well for you? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments.

Further resources

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor

This article is part of the series Happier At Work, which you can find here.

And remember, happiness is a choice, and you are in charge!

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