What to Do When a Colleague is Sabotaging Your Career
I’ve had my share of setbacks, but the ones that surprised me most were when colleagues tried to sabotage my career. I tend to believe in the best in people, so these were painful experiences.
Like the time when Harry bad-mouthed me at the department meeting in front of our boss and skip level boss. Harry’s comment felt like a deliberate attempt to make me look bad. While we weren’t the best of friends, I thought we had a relationship of mutual respect. Clearly not.
It’s hard enough to succeed in your career without someone else deliberately trying to undermine your efforts.
If this has happened to you too, take heart. Your career can still turn out well if you take steps to handle the situation.
So, what do you do when a colleague tries to sabotage your career?
Here are three steps that I’ve found helpful to get back on course.
- Check their intention
- Rally your resources
- Stay focused on your big goals
Sabotage is subject to interpretation
The dictionary definition of sabotage is “to deliberately stop someone from achieving something or to deliberately prevent a plan or process from being successful”.
The key word here is deliberately. Because we all say things from time to time without intending to hurt others. So start with understanding their intention behind saying what they’ve said or doing what they’ve done: was it deliberate?
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There’s a difference between someone’s intention and the impact it has on others. So before you conclude there’s an act of career sabotage, take a moment to assess your colleague’s intent.
When I relayed the Harry situation to my husband, he instantly saw that “Harry’s just looking out for Harry and you happened to be in his path. It’s not personal.” My husband turned out to be right.
Harry was just being Harry and everyone else knew about his character flaw but me. Understanding that it wasn’t a deliberate act of sabotage helped me let go of the emotional hurt, talk to Harry about the situation and then move on.
In other cases, a colleague’s actions that come across as sabotage could be that they’re trying to give you good advice by telling you not to do the thing you want to do. Or they could simply have a different point of view and an aggressive way of stating it. Or they could be insecure and feel threatened by you.
If you can talk to them and seek to understand their intent, that can go a long way to putting your mind at rest. It can also improve the relationship and reduce the likelihood of unintentional “friendly fire” in the future. Just make sure you’re in a calm state before having that conversation.
But what if their intent is to sabotage you after all?
This brings us to the second step.
Rally your own resources to neutralize the situation
This means getting to other key opinion leaders before your colleague does. Think of this as sealing off their other potential avenues for further sabotaging you while also providing your own version of the narrative.
For example, I discovered that my colleague Chuck was telling others in our department that I had broken my promise to transfer one of my team members to his group. I was fuming. Not only was this inaccurate, he had also attacked my reputation for integrity. Chuck was more senior than me, aggressive and frankly, intimidating. So I decided to look at who else I knew who could give me advice.
A former boss of Chuck’s – let’s call him Paul – was also a former boss of mine, and even though we weren’t in close touch, I called him for advice. After explaining the situation as factually as I could, I told Paul I wanted to handle the situation myself and only wanted advice.
Knowing my reputation for honesty and integrity, Paul sided with me and told me not to worry. A few minutes later, I received an unexpected phone call. It was Chuck, apologizing for his misstatement.
While you may not always get instant results, you can tap into your own resources and rally your allies around you.
Which brings us to the third step.
Stay focused on your big goals
Once you’ve rallied your resources and taken the steps you can think of, it’s time to focus on what you want to achieve and take deliberate action to stay on your path.
The worst thing that you can do is to get distracted or deterred by a colleague who’s sabotaging your career. Then they will have “won”.
It’s up to you to remain faithful to your aspirations. This means doing your job exceptionally well. There’s nothing like performing at your best to neutralize colleagues who want to sabotage your career.
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But what if it’s your manager who’s sabotaging you?
While it’s even more challenging when your manager is the one undermining you, these steps still apply.
Remember, not everyone promoted to management is a great manger. Sometimes, the issue lies with them and not you. So as hard as it is, try not to take things personally.
But if you’ve tried everything and the situation doesn’t improve, then it might be time to make a fresh start in another group or even organization. Just don’t leave it until it’s too late to recover. Like my former colleague who suffered silently under a boss who made her life miserable. It ultimately affected her health and she had to take time off to recover.
As you look for a better opportunity elsewhere, make sure you’ve taken the lessons from the current situation. That way you’ll recognize the early signs of potential sabotage and be able to address it before it blossoms into a career limiting situation.
Just don’t make the mistake of stooping to their level
Conduct yourself in a way that you’ll be proud of when you’re looking back on this episode years from now. In fact, this will likely fade in your memory and perhaps even be something you’ll chuckle at.
As my father told me when I was upset by something that seemed monumental at the time, “you won’t even remember this five years from now”. He was right.
So when you feel like a colleague is trying to sabotage your career, take heart
It can happen to anyone. Just remember to take the following three steps:
- Check their intention – don’t assume it’s a deliberate act of sabotage or take things personally
- Rally your resources – call on your network and create your own narrative around the situation
- Stay focused on your big goals – don’t be distracted or discouraged from going after your aspirations. Keep doing your job exceptionally well.
Which of these steps would most help you when a colleague is trying to sabotage your career?
Leave a comment and let me know.