If you’ve ever worked with some who seemed to regularly undermine you, you know it’s a miserable experience. And workplace undermining can take on different approaches, from someone who dismisses your ideas or makes sarcastic comments in meetings to someone who frequently gives overly nice compliments that seem unnecessary or out of context. It’s also common in some workplaces and can help drive high turnover. If you find yourself feeling constantly undermined by a colleague, there are ways to cope. Here are a few tips.
Determine how frequent the problem really is
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Using absolutes like “always,” “never,” and “constantly” to describe another person’s behavior is unhelpful. It’s factually inaccurate, too, because no human does anything or nothing in a constant way. Instead, quantify the undermining you experience.
For example, in the next three meetings you’re in with this coworker, tally up the number of comments or behaviors you find are undermining. Write them down for your own reference. Is it a comment or question? An eye roll or a laugh? Also, take note of the neutral and positive behaviors or comments. Then, look at the data. Is this coworker constantly undermining you? Odds are, probably not.
Ask a colleague to observe the interactions
Let’s say that you indeed recognize the undermining behavior isn’t constant but it’s still there frequently. Maybe you feel it in the tone of a question or how they often disagree with the ideas you share. It leaves you feeling like your perspective isn’t being heard. If this is the case, bring in a trusted colleague to observe the interactions. Call it a peer-check. Describe what you’re experiencing and ask them to observe and evaluate the interactions. Do they find that the other person’s words or behavior undermines yours?
Getting a third party to observe what you are experiencing is a helpful approach to figuring out human dynamics at work. Our interpretations and reactions to others aren’t always correct. It’s common to interpret another person’s behavior toward us as malicious when it wasn’t intended that way. It’s also possible your hunch is confirmed by your colleague and this coworker is undermining you. If this is the case, bring your boss into the issue and ask for their help. Your boss can attend a couple meeting with you to observe the dynamic first-hand and then address it with your coworker.
Try to understand what is influencing the behavior
A colleague of mine started a new job last year and in the first two weeks, coworkers said she should “watch her back” in reference to working at a place that lacked trust between colleagues. She said it was ominous and, frankly, kind of weird. But nine months later, she understood the warnings. The culture was built on intense competition with bonus payouts based on individual success. This meant that working as a team, collaborating with others, or even sharing information wasn’t incentivized. Instead, getting ahead despite others was.
Once she figured this out, it helped her understand that the system that was in place was nudging people to behave in ways that degraded that environment. Some individuals were worse than others, so she invested her time with coworkers who shared a similar attitude as hers. Understanding what influenced the work culture helped her cope with it.
You can do that too. See if there are external influences shaping the way people behave. This isn’t to condone bad behavior; it is to understand it so you can make some choices. My colleague is choosing to stay with her company because of the experience she’s getting in her field. For you, that may or may not be the case. Either way, get the information you need so that you can decide whether to stay or go.
Address the behavior (or don’t)
If you want and feel comfortable doing so, you can address the behavior with the offending colleague. Stick with the facts if you do. In practice, that means instead of saying, “I think you have been undermining me in our meetings,” try, “In the last meeting, I was interrupted three times.” Be as factual as possible.
But you also don’t have to address the behavior. Instead, you can focus on your own strategies to overcome it. Maybe before the next meeting, you practice out loud what you’ll say when your coworker interrupts you. Or you put up a sticky note to remind yourself to ignore the jerks and spend more time with like-minded people at work.