At one of my first “real” jobs, I was on a project with a group of workers who were notoriously manipulative. I buddied up with someone who seemed easygoing, though. During a meeting, our boss asked her why one of her tasks didn’t get done. My easygoing friend flat-out blamed it on me. It was my first experience with a manipulative coworker and it was not fun.
If you’ve dealt with a similar situation, you’re not alone. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology called it “social undermining” and “bottom line mentality.” It happens when a colleague will do whatever it takes to succeed or survive, even if it means throwing you under the bus. Another study from DePaul University found that coworkers or even supervisors can be hostile when they feel powerless, leading them to do things they would never do otherwise.
You probably don’t need a study to tell you this is common, though. You’ve likely experienced it yourself. A coworker makes you look bad so they can look good, or they conveniently forget to tell you something important. Or, like my situation, they get in trouble and use you as a scapegoat. Ideally, you just ignore the behaviour and it goes away. It’s not always that easy, though. When it starts to affect your life and career, you have to address it.
Don’t Ignore Your Gut
I should have seen it coming with my easygoing frenemy. She constantly gossiped and seemed way too eager to become friends. Another colleague even warned me not to trust anyone (what a fun job.) Small hints like this gradually built up until my gut said, “Run! This isn’t normal.”
If you find yourself putting up your guard around a coworker, “You might wonder if you’re imagining things and being paranoid,” she says. “Well, maybe you are, but under no circumstances should you ignore your feelings. They are often the very first sign of trouble.”
You might not want to believe that people you work with are dishonest and manipulative. Like me, you might feel guilty for even thinking it. It helps to look at the facts.
Your “gut feeling” is just a series of small details that you put together to form a pattern. If you’re unsure of that pattern, look at the facts objectively. What makes you mistrust this person? Do they wear red a lot and you hate the colour red? OK, then you’re being paranoid and judgemental. Do they constantly gossip about a fellow coworker and then ask that coworker if they want to go to lunch? That’s a little different.
If you’re still unsure, you can run their behaviour by objective people you trust, like your friends or family. Use them as a sounding board and see what they think.
Cover Your Arse and Distance Yourself
When a coworker starts manipulating you and ignoring the behaviour doesn’t work, the next step is to distance yourself from the situation, if possible.
For me, this meant no more lunches with my coworker. No more listening to her gossip or “venting.” I wanted to distance myself from this kind of negative behaviour, but I also wanted to cover my own arse. The more she knew about me, the more she could use against me if she ever decided to throw me under the bus again. Career site The Bolde says it’s important to keep a record of your communication, too:
Above all else, cover your arse on everything. Keep all correspondence. If your coworkers ask you to do something, follow up via email. When colleagues try to sabotage you, they might tell you lies to cause you to make mistakes. If you have questions about anything, ask your boss via email and copy the coworker. Tell the boss what was said and ask if that is really what you’re supposed to be doing. The more you cover your arse, the less you have to worry about.
In a similar situation, I worked with someone who had no idea what we were doing on a project because she rarely did any actual work. When it came time to meet with the boss, she would ask me to update her, and I did, so she could contribute to the meeting. One day, though, our boss asked her why part of the project wasn’t working. She said, “Ask Kristin. That’s her area.” I learned my lesson. For future meetings, I would arrive early so she didn’t have a chance to ask me for help. After a while, her lack of knowledge revealed that she really wasn’t doing any work. In other words, I distanced myself and let her sabotage herself.
My solution worked, but the unfortunate downside was that I became manipulative, too. Sure, I was defending myself, but by leaving my desk to get to the meeting early, I was engaging in the same indirect, passive-aggressive behaviour. Looking back, I should have been more direct.
Career site Dice puts it this way:
Early on, you might be able to address the situation with a simple conversation. If you weren’t invited to a meeting, for example, you can approach the person who left you off the invite, tell them you’re sure it was an oversight, and ask them to include you in the future. Having that kind of conversation “puts the offender on notice,” said Kathy Robinson, founder of the coaching firm TurningPoint in Arlington, Mass.
Plus, it keeps a record of the behaviour, in case you’re ever thrown under the bus.
Being upfront works in some situations, but not all of them. If the undermining is passive-aggressive, your friend might play dumb. Or, they might turn it around and ask why you’re being confrontational.
Being direct lets the other person know you’re aware of their manipulative behaviour, and in some cases, that may be enough to nip it in the bud. Stooping to their level might work, but it may also be a sign of weakness.
Of course, being direct doesn’t always work. As Dice points out, your coworker may just play dumb, or worse, they may be so manipulative they’re not even aware of it.
Be Wary of Their Tactics
It helps to understand what might motivate the manipulative person. Once you’re pretty sure they’re manipulating you, it’s useful to know how they operate. This way, you can avoid situations that give them a chance to do their worst.
For example, at another job, a colleague pushed me out of a project that I knew his supervisor wanted me to be a part of. Whenever his supervisor was not cc’ed on an email, he would tell me my work wasn’t necessary. The solution? Make sure the supervisor was always copied. This way, he didn’t have a chance to manipulate in the first place.
It also helps to know what motivates that person. In my case, this coworker seemed to be after a specific type of work that he was highly protective of, and oddly enough, I didn’t even want to do that type of work. When it fell on my lap, I’d ask if he wanted to do it. After a while, he curbed his sketchy behaviour because he realised I wasn’t a threat.
Find Support in Others
For me, the worst part about working with manipulative people was the lack of support. I worked hard, so our supervisors all knew better and my job was fine. It’s draining to be around people who prefer you fail.
To keep my energy high and stay empowered, I surrounded myself with as much outside support as possible, from friends and family members to interns who worked on other projects for the same company.
A study published in Social Science and Medicine found that this tactic can make a difference, even when “problematic support” exists:
Receipt of positive or helpful support from close friends and family was related to lower depression; receipt of problematic support was related to increased depression. A positive x problematic support interaction suggested that the costs of problematic support do not cancel out the benefits of positive support.
When you feel like someone is out to sabotage you at work, you want to stay professional and avoid engaging in the same behaviour, which can be tempting. To avoid this, it helps to spend time around people who want you to succeed.
Manipulative behaviour is common, but fortunately, it doesn’t exist everywhere. It’s smart to search for job postings, even when you have no intention to quit. Obviously, you don’t want to let one bad apple lead to your resignation but, if nothing else, knowing you have options can help you feel more empowered and in control of the situation.