how to deal with detractors at work
Culture | November 19, 2015
Fortunate or not, my first leadership role arrived early. I was in my 20s, and had shown merit as an individual performer in the PR department of a tech organization (Novell). My role arrived without fanfare or training, but with some prophetic words of advice from the company’s SVP: “If everybody is happy with you all of the time, you’re probably not doing your job.”
He was right. In the workplace (and elsewhere) everyone is sure to face a time when it seems the majority of your time involves dealing with the inevitable detractors who will be coming your way. They may be motivated by jealousy (“What did she ever do to deserve that position? I’ve been here longer. I’m older. I’ve been working in this sector since before he was even in school.”)
The person may have a psychological makeup that makes them resent authority of any kind. Or they may feel unappreciated, downtrodden or misunderstood. Regardless of their motivation, there are people in every workplace who are jealous, resentful, passive aggressive, or are dealing in downright sabotage.
So here are a few pointers on when to ignore haters, when and how to face their activities head on, and when it’s time to take your hands away from the situation and turn to HR.
As Hillary Clinton shared with young professionals at the Women in the World Summit in 2014, “It’s important to take criticism seriously—not personally.”
These are wise words. The detractor may be subtle—feigning friendship or agreement with you in public, only to annihilate your reputation the minute you walk away. Or they may be obvious, greeting your every remark with an icy stare, or when you speak to them, will pretend “no one spoke.” They may be passive aggressive, avoiding eye contact and ignoring assignments and deadlines, or may purposely sabotage a project by withholding information, stirring up trouble among others, or leaking critical information to competitors.
What can you do? First off, it’s important to remember that when someone is behaving as less than their most admirable self, the situation invariably has more to do with them than with you. You must understand that such people are hurt and frustrated in either the workplace or in other parts of their lives. Perhaps they feel unappreciated. Perhaps, correct or incorrect, they believe they’ve been wronged. Where possible, take the time to understand the source of their frustration. Odds are, the root of the behavior has nothing to do with you, and perhaps never did.
Ideally, you may be able to lift a person out of their negativity by example, or by subtly helping them practice a more productive way of thinking about and addressing their woes. If you are successful in helping them solve a problem or lifting them out of their negativity, you may gain a powerful team member and friend.
But suppose it’s not the case. For some work place foes, the only acceptable outcome, once they have you in their cross hairs, is your immediate annihilation or demise. You have four options:
Ignore it. You can choose to not hear or react to the barbed remarks or sharp edges. Hear and respond to what you choose to hear and respond to. Force the interactions to be professional and positive until the detractor realizes they must either follow suit or move their behaviors to more rewarding ground as you are simply unwilling to take the bait and engage.
Use it as a motivation. Does the person resent you for being younger, newer or less traditional in your role? Use the challenge as a motivation to show up even better and to give every project your best. Since you can’t change another person’s behavior, let the bad behavior at least spur you to a better outcome than before.
Confront the detractor. Perhaps the best route is to get the situation out on the table, particularly if it can clear the air or open the door to a productive conversation. This is a situation to handle with care. If both you and the other party are willing to work toward a peaceable solution, opening the topic can be an excellent plan. Broach the subject with tact. Begin by owning any part you may have contributed to. “I’d like to apologize for something,” you might say. “I’m not really sure how to describe it, but it feels like we have a ‘bad vibe’. Am I right? And if so, what, could I do or what could we do together to address it and be sure it doesn’t slow us down anymore?”
Reach out to a manager or to HR. If an individual is downright hostile or is doing things that violate company policy (leaking confidential information, stealing, purposely undermining coworkers or even undermining the company itself), it is time to speak with your manager and then reach out to HR. Yes, this is a scary step. But the sooner you rip away the Band-Aid, the sooner the injuries from exposure to a toxic person can heal.
In the words of workplace expert Nance Rosen, in her article “Evil does Exist. It May Be One Of Your Co-Workers,” Rosen said this: “I had a plant like this in the outer reaches of my property at home. The plant is called poison ivy. It makes you itch, blister and scar. It looks benign, even nice. But it’s poisonous. Just have to cut it out. Then the rest of the plants can blossom.”