Whether they’re stealing the credit, criticizing your work in front of others, or leaving you in the lurch on a project, difficult coworkers can make you look bad. A study from The Creative Group staffing firm found that nearly a third of marketing executives felt a colleague had tried to sabotage them on the job.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question “Friend or foe?” says Wharton School of Business professor Maurice Schweitzer, coauthor of the book Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both.
“Sometimes it’s those closest to us who undermine us,” he says. “Our friends are often similar to us, and often care about the same outcomes we do. They might have started around the same time, and have similar backgrounds and aspirations. When you outperform a colleague in a domain they care about, watch out.”
Sabotage and competition can look similar, says Joe Weinlick, senior vice president of the online career network Beyond. “It’s very rare that someone would be actively trying to sabotage your career,” he says. “More likely, they’re competing for the same promotions you are, and they’re doing their best to demonstrate why they deserve to advance more than other people–including you.”
So how do you handle it when the person who wants to see you fail is someone you have to work with every day? Whether it’s sabotage or direct competition, here’s how to protect your career from those who would like to derail you:
Stay under the radar by being modest, suggests Schweitzer: “The next time you want to broadcast an accomplishment, consider how it may make others feel,” he says. “Also share information about our struggles and failures. After a great vacation, for example, remember to tell the story of your lost luggage and not just the great climb.”
If you find yourself putting up your guard around a coworker, organizational psychotherapist Joan Kingsley says it’s important to listen to those feelings.
“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.”
Kingsley, coauthor of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights From Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture, says emotions are hard-wired into the brain, and can pick up even the most subtle danger signals.
“The coworker who is trying to sabotage you may make you feel afraid or angry or sad,” she says. “They may irritate you and you may find yourself wanting to avoid them.”
Trust is built on the foundations of a good relationship, says Kingsley. “It is distressing to discover that you are being betrayed by a coworker; particularly if you have worked closely with that person and believe you can trust them,” she says.
Instead of basing trust on someone’s words, observe their deeds, says Schweitzer. While they may congratulate you on a coveted promotion or recognition, watch if their actions say the opposite.
If you believe someone has it out for you, go out of your way to include them, says Weinlick.
“Spend time talking to them, invite them to meetings, and try to find projects that you are both passionate about and see if you can move them forward together,” he says. “You may find out they really didn’t have it out for you. And, it will demonstrate to everyone that you are a team player and not someone to be tied down with petty office conflicts.”
If you do find evidence of sabotage, take it seriously. Gather evidence to support your belief that you are being undermined and sabotaged. Kingsley suggests keeping a diary detailing your concerns with evidence to support them, and gathering information from other colleagues if they’re aware you’re being betrayed.
It can also help to take their perspective to foresee and forestall their next steps, adds Schweitzer. “Expose their nefarious activity, and build a coalition of supporters,” he says.
Instead of complaining to the boss, Weinlick says you should speak directly to the coworker. This approach was the most common way of handling the situation, according to the Creative Group study.
“Ask them in a constructive manner why they don’t think you are the right person for the job,” he says. “Most likely, people will respect you for being direct. And, you may learn about a weakness other people perceive you to have that you can work to overcome.”
Change your passwords, shut down your computer when you leave your desk, and keep sensitive documents under lock and key, suggests Kingsley.
“Choose your words carefully when sending emails so that things you write can’t come back to bite you, and create boundaries and only give information out that is necessary,” she says. “Keep your emotions in check when communicating with the person causing concern. If you lose your cool, you will be in danger of looking undignified.”