4 min read

How To Undermine Your Coworkers With Grace

And how to ensure they can't tell you're doing it
Pile of bricks and rubble
What successful undermining looks like | Image James Bellerjeau

Greetings friends!

I recently gave constructive advice about how to manage the three phases of your career for maximum impact. Today's advice is of a different nature, although no less helpful, potentially.

You can go through life assuming people are basically good. You might get lucky and avoid ever being taken advantage of. You will certainly be a kinder, less suspicious person.

Most of us will not be so lucky. Then we’re confronted with missed opportunities, bad outcomes, and hurt feelings. And the most painful feeling of all? Knowing that we could have avoided being played for a fool if only we were paying attention.

If what you want is to reliably get ahead in your career, you must do more than simply avoid being the sucker. You must erode the foundation underneath your manipulative colleagues’ feet without them even noticing.

It takes real skill, artistry even, to gain the upper hand surreptitiously

The most successful at this game are all but invisible. You will never know they are playing it. They appear neither naïve nor sophisticated, but rather likable and earnest.

The best tacticians are no one’s idea of an easy target, but also not top of mind when evaluating threats. Just part of the fabric of the company, solid, integral, and unassuming.

You can only achieve such mastery by knowing your company, your colleagues, and your (next) role exquisitely well.

That’s because your success comes mostly from positioning — being in the right place at the right time, avoiding career-harming stumbles, and associating with people who can elevate you.

Let’s explore.

Avoid these obvious mistakes

If you don’t want to be caught out as a manipulator, here are behaviors you must scrupulously avoid:

  • Being seen to say negative things about your coworkers or your company.
  • Taking credit for things you haven’t done, and shirking blame for those you have.
  • Not sharing information with colleagues or inviting them to meetings.
  • Trying to get colleagues to do your work or preventing them from completing their own.
  • Acting friendly while behaving aggressively. And playing the victim card if called on your aggressive behavior.
  • Treating others as less important than you.

Tactics for the advanced practitioner

Rather than saying bad things about your coworkers, the adept will instead damn them with faint praise.

Bless Jane. I don’t know many people who would have had the patience to spend half a day on a single email. I like her stubbornness.

And when you dole out credit, do so for everyone. And make it clear how valuable each of their contributions was.

We couldn’t have done this without the team’s efforts. John kept us fueled with daily donuts. Sue turned on the lights every day. And Matt reminded us of the importance of keeping perspective by leaving at 3:00 p.m. every day to pick up his kids.

Always take your share of the blame, while making sure to pick the best part.

Boss, I have to take responsibility for my part in this. I had a sense Tom and Mary were steering things in the wrong direction. But I wanted to be a team player, so I didn’t challenge them sufficiently.

Why would you ever withhold information or meetings from your colleagues? Remembering we’re all overloaded, how clever to keep the inbox overflowing and the calendar full.

Hi Fred. To make sure you’re fully in the loop, I’m inviting you to the weekly status update meetings for Projects Dung, Beetle, and Despair. They are only 90 minutes each, and I trust you’ll come prepared. To that end, I’m having each of the sub-teams copy you on all their interim reports. Happy reading!

You’ve seen your colleagues’ work output. Do you really think it’s a good idea to let them near any of your own tasks? Use the Tom Sawyer tactic to have them volunteer to take over the stuff you want to offload.

Tammy, the annual meeting tasks are among the most important of the General Counsel’s duties. It brings the GC into contact with the board, the auditors, and shareholders. No one has made GC without gaining experience in the corporate secretary role. I’m not sure anyone can do this but me.

Your camouflage is never attracting attention, either by getting angry or by appearing to rise to provocation. No matter the slight, you carry on unperturbed. Your composure will be taken for wisdom and confidence.

Boy, Sherry really lit into you at the executive committee.
‘I’m sure it seemed appropriate to her. She’s been under a lot of stress.’

Assistants and support staff are the keys to all the situational help you need to advance your career. Others’ disrespect is your golden opportunity.

Jamie, I just wanted to say thank you for all that you do. I know technically you don’t report to me, but I see how much you do and that we’d be lost without you. It’s a wonder not everyone sees it the same way.

Who can elevate you in your career?

To state the obvious, it is the people who dole out promotions that are the ones who will make or break your career. Why should they think of you when it comes time to fill a role?

Why indeed. If you’ve cultivated the support staff, then you will not have the well poisoned before you can even make a pitch. If you’ve been applying the above methods, then you’ve artfully seeded doubt about your coworkers.

What remains is ensuring that your own good deeds shine through. You do this as follows:

  1. Understand the boss’s priorities, which may or may not be reflected in their targets.
  2. Frame your own accomplishments in light of how they have helped your boss achieve their priorities.

You needn’t lie or exaggerate. No boss has a detailed view of what their underlings do. Just describe accurately those things you did that helped the boss. Leave out all the other stuff, even if it represented 90% of your hours.

Always leave room for strategic ambiguity

Never, ever, under any circumstance reveal your purpose or your motives. Always stick to the benevolent explanation. Others will believe what you project. Or at least they won’t be able to challenge you without appearing petty.

Even if they doubt, you must never give them a thread to pull on.

If you’ve followed the tips here correctly, you’ll be well on the way to not only being a high performer but also getting recognized for it.

Any tips I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Be well.

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I published a version of this article on Medium originally.