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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Workplace Doctor: New team member seems intent on undermining me

Like it or not, office politics plays a huge role in many organisations

Dealing with an employee bent on undermining authority can be tricky. Brendan Smialowski/AFP
Dealing with an employee bent on undermining authority can be tricky. Brendan Smialowski/AFP

A new member of staff in my team, recently promoted to the position, seems intent on undermining me, especially in front of the directors. I have to rely on this person when I am not able to oversee operations but I suspect they are possibly deliberately sabotaging my efforts to make the department run smoothly. What can I do?

BZ, Abu Dhabi

From your description of this person’s behaviour, it seems likely that he/she is intentionally trying to enhance their self-interest. Most of us have either experienced or heard stories of those who try to take credit for work they didn’t do, and undermining or deliberately sabotaging others fall into the same category. Like it or not, office politics plays a huge role in many organisations; with a cost implication that can run into billions of dollars globally.

In the UAE in particular, there is a big drive and focus on happiness at work, innovation and employee engagement – all of which can be significantly undermined by individual and organisation politics. Counter-productive work behaviour, as seen in politics, harms organisations and people. It can take a major toll on people and productivity, distracting their focus away from work and undermining team performance by breaking down trust and respect. Because of these negative impacts, it is imperative that politics is effectively addressed. Simply put, politics is the archenemy of performance.

Real sabotage as you have referred to is fortunately relatively rare in the workplace, but when it does happen it can make for a very toxic environment and culture. It is important to distinguish between competitiveness and sabotage as they can be difficult to tell apart. Someone that is overly competitive will be seen to compete with everyone on some level, not just with you. Sabotage however, will see the person actively trying to undermine you - wanting to see that you, in particular, fail.

Saboteurs are often driven by a sense of feeling threatened by another person or their talents; or an insecurity, where their outward shell of self-centeredness may mask a weak inner core. In general, saboteurs will try to hold others back in order to put themselves in a better position.

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How do you know that you are being sabotaged? Firstly, you may notice that you always feel defensive when you are around this staff member. He/she may be seen to withhold critical information from you, dismiss your ideas, try to distract you or purposely leave you out of things. This person may have picked up on your areas of sensitivity, or potential weak spots and could try to exploit them. It is also possible that this person may encourage gossip or spread rumours about you. This staff member may refuse, in a subtle way, to help you or give advice. When given the opportunity, as may be the case when you rely on them to oversee operations, this person may overstep their rank and as you have mentioned, try to make you look bad in front of superiors.

So what can you do to deal with the situation? First and foremost, stay professional and remain positive. Before you assume any bad intentions, try to understand the issue. Although some people are naturally manipulative and undermining, try to ascertain if there is an ulterior motive for this person’s behaviour. Perhaps you unknowingly played a part in a misunderstanding, such as a mix-up or confusion over roles or responsibilities? Be alert and be careful with the information you give out, as this person may use it against you at a later point. Start to document your interactions; be as specific and as factual as you can. Before you take your concerns to HR or your manager, address this with the staff member in question in a professional, calm and non-emotional way.

Doctor’s prescription:

Your intuition has been alerted to this individual’s behaviour, so it is worth trusting that and not letting your guard down. If possible, use a close friend or colleague as a sounding board to test your thinking before taking any actions. Safeguard yourself as much as possible whilst increasing opportunities for openness and dialogue at the same time. As this is likely to have an impact on the team overall, focus on collaboration and effective management of conflict.