How to deal with saboteurs in your business

“I can’t stand it. I know you planned it!”

Yes, like the Beastie Boys before us, we’re talking about the fine art of sabotage, and we’re gonna set it straight, this Watergate. We’ve covered tips on dealing with a wide range of troublemaking coworkers, a motley crew including divas and doormats and territorial trolls. But few collabohaters are quite as treacherous and brazen as the saboteur.

You’re a likable person who’s a valuable asset to your team. Why in the world would one of your own collaborators try to sabotage you?

Inside the minds of the saboteurs

Few people self-identify as saboteurs. In their own minds, saboteurs may fancy themselves to be misunderstood revolutionaries; much of their poor behavior comes in reaction to perceived slights and missteps. They may be aggravated with the direction your company is taking, or misdirecting their frustrations with their bosses by trying to wage war on equals and underlings. Other times, saboteurs may see you as a personal threat to their authority or even to their continued employment. It gets particularly uncomfortable when the saboteur is also a supervisor.

It’s worth noting that these fears aren’t always misplaced, especially in the latter case. Plenty of businesses have put high-salaried managers out to pasture once a much-cheaper underling proves semi-sufficient.

As with any situation in which you find yourself collaborating with a collabohater, then, the first step involves empathy. What causes someone to treat the workplace like Survivor? Why would a coworker consistently try to pull the rug from under your ideas?

Get frank before you get shanked

You probably won’t get a straight answer if you just sidle up alongside them and ask “Hey, why are you such a jerk?” But if you approach from a place of genuine concern, and are willing to share some of your own frustrations, they are more likely to open up. Is the issue with the company/department as a whole, or is it something more personal? If they really think you specifically are a fount of terrible ideas, you should be able to have an honest conversation about it, rather than having your saboteur gossip about you, cut you out of meetings or engage you in petty drama and unnecessary friction.

Be ready to hear them out – and if they go on the attack, don’t immediately go on the defensive.

“If you can’t tolerate honest feedback, you may be provoking passive-aggressive behavior in colleagues… who normally express themselves in healthier ways,” writes Carlin Flora, citing psychologist and author Tim Murphy.

That doesn’t mean you need to “lose the fight.” While some saboteurs are diabolical and brilliant, most of them tend to be more like Wile E. Coyote, and you can easily take a few steps to make sure that you’re the triumphant Roadrunner.

If your saboteur is motivated by a more general form of professional ennui (i.e. “I hate it here!”), try to see whether you have any common ground (jerks and good ideas are not, alas, mutually exclusive) and encourage escalating the conversation to management and/or HR, depending on the grievances.

Leave a paper trail

Make it clear how this person’s actions are impacting your work, and the work of your team or business as a whole. It’s a good idea to document some specific cases of deleterious behavior so you don’t fumble around with generalities if the saboteur plays innocent or demands examples.

Another popular saboteur tactic: stealing your ideas. Here, again, an insecure manager may be a culprit.

As The Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah E. Needleman advised: “Going forward, you may be able to stop a conniving boss or colleague in his or her tracks by putting every idea, suggestion and accomplishment into a time-stamped document, like an email, says Janet Reid, a co-founder and principal partner at Global Lead LLC, a management-consulting firm.”

Is your culture the culprit?

As business cultures continue to evolve and become more collaboration-centric, some of the root causes for malicious behavior will, in theory, disappear. I say “in theory” because even when organizations commit loudly and proudly to a collaborative culture, they don’t always instill the values at every level of the organization. In other words, they talk about team, but give promotions and raises based solely on individual performance.

“Collaborative organizations recognize and reward collaborative rather than internally-competitive or star-oriented behavior,” author and collaboration expert Evan Rosen warned us back in 2013. “The problem with star-oriented cultures is that they breed and reward internal competition and information hoarding which short circuit collaboration.”

Rosen isn’t alone. “Most workplaces prize individual achievement over and above anything else,” Alexander Kjerulf told Forbes. “The person who gets the bonus is almost always the one who gets the best results for himself, not the one who goes out of his way to help others. This encourages competition and makes people try to hold others back.”

Is your business accidentally incentivizing backstabbers and me-firsters?

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

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