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Dealing with Undermining at Work

Being undermined at work can be incredibly frustrating and make you feel powerless. It may seem like no matter how hard you work, a co-worker is trying to make you look bad or steal credit for your ideas. However, there are productive ways to address underminers that can improve the situation rather than escalating conflict.

Today we will explore common undermining behaviors, strategies for constructive communication, and tips for protecting yourself when faced with this workplace challenge.

Undermining Behaviors to Watch For

Underminers employ different tactics to cast others in a negative light. Some of the most common undermining behaviors include:

  • Taking credit for your work and ideas: One underminer may present your work or concepts as their own original thinking during meetings or to management. This can minimize your contributions and innovation.

  • Belittling you or your efforts: Through backhanded compliments, jokes at your expense, or outright criticism, underminers try to portray you and your work as inadequate. This aims to weaken confidence in your abilities.

  • Spreading rumors or gossip: By whispering negative things about you to coworkers, underminers damage your reputation and turn others against you. Causing distrust can undermine your role.

  • Withholding important information: Some underminers try to set you up for failure by not sharing key details, context, or feedback that would help you succeed. ItRigging you for failure undercuts your work.

  • Sabotaging or obstructing your work: More directly, underminers may tamper with your work, delete important files, or stand in the way of progress to hinder you. Active disruption aims to impede and embarrass you.

Addressing the Undermining through Communication

When undermining occurs, it’s wise to avoid retaliation or conflict. Instead, constructive communication can help illuminate the underminer’s motivations while setting clear boundaries. Useful strategies include:

  • Speaking with them one-on-one: Have a frank, yet civil conversation expressing how their behaviors affect you and proposing more positive interactions. Make it a thoughtful dialogue, not an attack.

  • Focusing on understanding their motivations: They may feel threatened by your skills or jealous of your visibility. Understanding their perspective prevents assumptions and reminds you it’s likely not personal.

  • Appealing through positive language: Say you want to work together, not compete, and reframe outlined expectations as opportunities for growth. This positive approach can disarm tension.

  • Attempting mediation: If a civil dialogue doesn’t work, propose a mediated conversation through HR. Having a third party can ensure understanding and prevent escalation.

  • Presenting the facts calmly: If undermining continues, calmly point out factual examples to leadership of how this person has crossed lines. Focus just on facts to avoid seeming resentful.

  • Taking the high road: Never stoop to their level by undermining them back or spreading rumors. Maintain a high level of professionalism to contrast any toxicity.

Protecting Yourself from Further Undermining

While communication aims to improve the situation, you must also implement strategies to protect your own reputation and standing if undermining persists:

  • Documenting incidents: Keep a factual log of undermining behaviors, including dates, times, witnesses and exact behaviors. Documentation prevents gaslighting and provides evidence.

  • Routing communications through email: Email creates documentation of your contributions and work delivered. It also prevents others from verbally claiming credit.

  • Making your accomplishments visible: Be sure to share your work and ideas with leadership directly. Nominate yourself for awards. Find ways to ensure credit is given properly.

  • Building social capital: Nurture positive relationships across the company and support others’ initiatives. Strong bonds bolster your reputation against slander.

  • Projecting confidence: Don’t let an underminer’s attacks show. Maintain confidence in your abilities by focusing on your proven strengths.

  • Distancing yourself: Outside of required interactions for work, minimize unnecessary contact with the underminer. Limit opportunities for them to target you.


Dealing with a workplace underminer can be demoralizing. But by staying professional, direct communication, protecting yourself, and focusing on your own development, you can overcome these challenges. Seek support from trusted coworkers, mentors and leadership. Continue to add value through your contributions - in time, your efforts will speak for themselves, undermining be damned. Stay positive and don’t let detractors take you off course. You’ve got this!


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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