That weird feeling you get around a coworker might mean something. As Catch 22 author Joseph Heller once put it, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Ignoring the signs that someone is undermining you is as harmful as being distrustful. Sabotaging colleagues are more than an annoyance. They can derail your career.
The real problem? A recent University at Buffalo School of Management study concluded that victims often become victimizers. It makes sense. If you’re undermined, you’ll have a harder time achieving success. You’ll soon lose relationships and reputation. The study estimated that workplace “interpersonal aggression” costs companies over $6 billion a year in health care costs, turnover, and lost productivity. As the study’s lead author, KiYoung Lee, PhD, explains, “The fact that victims become selfish is troublesome because it makes it easier to rationalize doing harm to others. We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining ‘part of the game.’” So break the cycle. Start by looking at these six signs you are being sabotaged at work.
1. They are the rumor mill
Most of us enjoy workplace gossip. The sad truth is, in some companies it’s the best way to figure out who’s getting a raise and who is being forced into retirement. It can also help teams form valuable social alliances. The spread of “reputational information through gossip promotes cooperation in mixed-motive settings,” one study suggested. We’re actually built for gossip –– we evolved to share information that can help us stay safe. Still, there’s a difference between idle chit chat and the sort of rumors that can affect your advancement. If you’ve recently heard an unsettling rumor about yourself, try to discover the source. If one co-worker’s poison tongue is responsible for most of the gossip, you will need to deal with it. Some rumors may need to be brought to HR.
2. You Aren’t Their First Victim
Patterns are meaningful. A history of sabotage with wounded workers in their wake should be addressed. If someone is undermining you, chances are they’ve done the same thing before. Do some research. People often blame others for lost promotions and opportunities, but similar complaints about one individual may have merit. Be particularly vigilant around anyone who casually insults an absent colleague –– chances are they’re badmouthing you whenever you aren’t around.
3. You’re Missing Out
Did they “forget” to tell you about an important meeting? Did everyone else get together after work but for some reason your name wasn’t on the email chain? Sidelining you from workplace conferences and social events is the raison d’être for the underminer. Of course, being left out of fun activities may mean you’re the underminer. It’s important to take a long hard look at some reflective glass before assuming someone else is the problem.
4. They’re Unreal
If one co-worker is excessively complimentary or seems to have a “fake” personality, it could be a sign. Underminers need to lull victims into false senses of security. Be cautious –– they could be hiding an aggressive, even violent personality. If they “break character,” be prepared. Don’t confront them, rather document patterns. If they are a potential threat, you need to speak with HR. If you have an ongoing issue with them, chances are you’re not alone.
5. They lie
Underminers are often liars. Getting to know the signs of lying are as important as learning the six signs you are being sabotaged at work. Former FBI agent Mark Bouton recommends taking the time to observe their normal behavior. Make small talk. Take note of their usual manner –– including tics and conversational patterns. Body language can be a real clue. Liars often wring their hands, play with jewelry, or plant their palms on their lap. Hair twirlers could be liars –– or they could just enjoy twirling their hair.
6. They Take the Credit While Deferring the Blame
This is the greatest sin sabotaging colleagues commit. Your accomplishments do more than lead to promotions. They give you a reputation as someone who achieves despite the odds. You want to be the go-to person, first in line for challenging assignments and tight deadlines. If you’re doing all the work while someone else is taking all the credit, it’s a problem. No, you don’t want to loudly proclaim you accomplishments. Ideally a trusted mentor or a colleague will tout your merits. Saboteurs who take all the credit need to be stopped. Document initial ideas and brainstorms with emails or screenshots of IMs. Don’t lose out on promotions from credit-hogging colleagues. Talk to them. If needed, bring in your manager. The meek may inherit the earth but they don’t get the corner office.