How can they do it? A colleague, someone you thought of as a friend, says one thing to your face, and then proceeds to undermine you. It’s a knife wedged firmly in your back.
When it happened to me, a well-meaning friend said to ‘take it as a compliment’. Research shows that competent people are more at risk of undermining from their envious colleagues. Supposedly, it’s the high price of good performance.
In Australia it’s called the Tall Poppy Syndrome. No one likes others to excel and stand above the crowd, so we cut them down to size.
When my colleague repeated a conversation we’d had in private about a team member’s performance, I was completely gutted. I thought I could be candid and open. I had shared my frustration and concern in colourful and passionate language. It wasn’t my most professional moment, but I had thought I was in a safe, confidential space. Apparently not.
My colleague thought it her duty to repeat my opinions, so as to be transparent. I ended up looking like an evil blackguard, intent on the ruthless ousting of a struggling underperformer.
Needless to say, I was mortified. I felt my trust completely betrayed. Was she jealous and trying to cut my legs out from under me? This kind of two-faced subterfuge affects mental health and personal resilience.
In a recent study (Tallest Poppy, 2018), a whopping 69.5% of respondents reported that being undermined affected their productivity, along with eroding trust, becoming more disengaged, and increasing a sense of the impostor syndrome.
What was the real story? I decided to find out. I summoned my courage and eventually confronted her on it. She was surprised by my question. She said that when she repeated my words it was to make sure they would not be misconstrued. In her mind, she was being supportive. I sat in gobsmacked silence processing this. She had not intentionally undermined me. It had certainly felt like it from where I was sitting. It was going to take some work to unwind my feelings and story about what had happened.
The other insight for me was this: if you’re worried that others might repeat your comments, don’t say them. Perhaps I was the real underminer in this situation. My intention had been to vent. But had I not been doing the very same thing I was accusing my colleague of – speaking about someone behind their back? Ouch. Self awareness can be painful.
The anxiety around betrayals and undermining has been exacerbated through the pandemic. At least in an office, you can sense it. It’s the hushed conversations behind closed doors. It’s the sudden silence as you walk into a room. It’s the red-faced glances as you catch them mid-sentence. In a remote working situation, the silence is deafening. What are people saying in their own private zoom chats? In the absence of evidence, the mind will fill gaps of knowledge with unhelpful stories, as I did.
Then there’s your staff. They say they will complete tasks as you delegate them, then proceed to ignore the directive. Mumbled excuses of, “I had too much on – I couldn’t get to it” become the default response. When teams are remote, it’s difficult to challenge how they are actually using their time because you can’t see what they’re doing day to day. Do you take their word for it or challenge them on it?
For an employee intent on eroding their supervisor’s authority, avoiding delegated work is a sneaky way to make the boss look bad. Perfect if you want to wear down their credibility and confidence.
What’s going on then? Are colleagues deliberately trying to take their peers down? Are staff members intentionally flouting the boss’ instructions to simply stick it to them?
The truth is likely more complex than simple jealousy.
For whatever reason, some may not feel able to speak up about issues in the workplace. They may feel it’s easier to say yes, and then carry on, to avoid a showdown.
Furthermore, what looks like subterfuge might in fact be a misunderstanding. Our role as leaders is to seek the truth and clear the air. That includes taking a long hard look in the mirror and making sure we are not also contributing to the issue.