Here’s How to Deal With an Undermining Coworker

What do you do when a coworker undermines everything you do? How should you respond? 

When you’re in a workplace with an undermining coworker, it can be hard for you to be at your best. After all, it can only take one bad apple to ruin the entire barrel! 

This type of environment invites negativity and destroys company culture and morale. It can completely change the outlook of what a workplace is supposed to be — a space where you can advance your career and meet like-minded individuals in pursuit of achieving a certain goal.  

Most of us can agree, we’ve all been in a situation where we think we’re being undermined by one of our coworkers.

Most of it is usually done for personal gain, but the tricky part when it comes to being hindered by other coworkers is that it can be difficult to pinpoint when it happens, especially if one of your coworkers just showed a temporary lapse in judgment. 

Undermining can come in different forms:

  • Backhanded compliments
  • Spreading false information behind your back
  • Getting you called up to your boss’s office after he received ‘anonymous’ feedback of your behavior or performance on a recent project
  • And more 

Before you learn how to deal with an undermining coworker, you’ll need to know the signs if he/she is out to sabotage you in the first place. 

Here are some of the signs to be wary of:

1. Unhealthy competition 

a man with a headache

Competition is normal in every workplace. It can either trigger a feeling of excitement or anxiety, two completely different emotions that play a huge role in an employee’s performance. 

When an employee feels excited, they’re more likely to be more motivated, giving them more opportunities to think of creative ways to solve a problem. However, when competition triggers anxiety in an employee, it could lead to them cutting corners, submitting subpar outputs, and, you guessed it, sabotaging coworkers. 

2. They treat others differently

When you’re being undermined by a coworker, chances are you’re not the only one. You can easily detect an undermining employee by the way they treat your other colleagues. If they are more biased towards you or to one of your coworkers, that would be a tell-tale sign of being around an undermining coworker. 

3. They overstep

Do you feel one of your coworkers bosses you and others around? Do they present themselves as your superior when, in reality, you're the same rank as them? 

This sign of undermining is usually present whenever you enter a new workplace. Some may pull ‘rank’ that he or she doesn’t have. They'll start by asking you to do their tasks, especially when in the presence of others.

By ordering you around, this helps them feel in control and hold the upper hand. 

4. They interfere with your productivity

This is one of the more subtle forms of undermining but shouldn’t be confused with whenever one of your coworkers wants to build a friendly relationship with you.

You can tell when an undermining coworker is trying to interfere with your productivity. They'll choose the most inopportune time to visit your desk and invite you for a long lunch, night out with colleagues, and other team bonding activities.   

Now that you’re certain of being around an undermining coworker, here’s how to deal with them before it spirals out of control:

1. Acknowledge the situation head-on

man thinking while on his laptop

Remember, proper communication is the secret to success. Don’t just assume that one of your coworkers is undermining you. Chances are, they might not even be aware of what they’re doing. If your undermining coworker has gone too far in their efforts of trying to undermine you, don’t be afraid to calmly confront them about it. 

When you fail to address or acknowledge the issue, it tells them that you’re okay with what he or she did, giving them a green light to take their efforts even further. 

Hre's an example:

If the undermining coworker ‘forgot’ to invite you to an important meeting or didn’t keep you up-to-speed on certain changes, don’t just stew over it at your desk, ask him or her what caused it.

If you don't want to make a scene, you can ask if they want to meet with you in private.    

We understand that it can be easy to lose your temper in these sorts of situations, that’s why you need to make sure your only focus is to address the root cause of the problem as calmly as possible. Using this method will also help you come to a mutual understanding on the spot. 

2. Build a relationship with them

It’s always difficult to get acclimated to a new environment. But for those on the other side of the coin, particularly those in the same department as you,  it could mean that their tenure with the company might be hanging by a thread. 

Although you might not have done anything to trigger these feelings, it’s important that you still find different opportunities to try and build a relationship with them. When you engage with them beyond work-related matters, it creates a collaborative environment that will lead to higher morale for everyone in the workplace. 

3. Stay professional

man adjusting his tie

When everything fails - trying to build a relationship, alerting your boss and HR, or having a civil conversation with your undermining coworker - the best course of action is to take what you can from the situation.

Undermining coworkers have spent a considerable period trying to find your weak spots… weak spots that you didn’t even know yourself.  You can use that as motivation to amend your weaknesses and bolster your career. 

You shouldn’t have to stoop down to their level and get caught engaging in different bad work habits. When, in reality, there’s always a way you can overcome them. As the famous Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu once said: “Care about what others think and you will always be their prisoner.”

Final thoughts

When it comes to undermining coworkers, remember that they’re only out to do one thing; ruin your confidence and self-esteem, causing you to perform poorly at work. 

Before you take any form of action, be careful not to make any assumptions before you tag someone as an undermining coworker. Look out for the different signs mentioned above and make sure you do the following:

  • Tackle the situation head-on but calmly
  • Make an effort to  build relationships
  • Stay professional  

When you heed the following tips, this will help lead to only two things:

  • Defusing the situation with your undermining coworker or
  • Giving you an opportunity to use their negative efforts as motivation to grow your career.

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” ― Shannon L. Alder

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