I am writing on behalf of a close friend, “Jane,” who has asked me to help her find tactics to compete with a difficult coworker.
Jane has been in her current job a bit over two years. For the first year, she felt valued and generally satisfied with her position. Then another woman, “Laura,” joined Jane’s department. Jane’s work life has been deteriorating ever since.
Laura is something of an overachiever and, by what I hear from Jane (I do not work with them), a consummate politicker. Laura has ingratiated herself to their mutual superior, is chummy with many of their colleagues and appears helpful to and liked by all — except Jane.
In the course of her own work, Laura meddles in and gathers information on projects that are not her responsibility, including Jane’s. When this yields valuable lessons, Laura is selective in assisting her colleagues. She shares in depth with other co-workers while offering minimal, grudging (though civil) assistance to Jane. When Laura’s unsolicited contributions affect others’ projects, she communicates well with those concerned — again, except for Jane, who receives offhanded and unapologetic notice of important activities, if any.
When Laura’s interference has threatened the quality of Jane’s work, Jane has asserted this to her manager, requested and to a degree received support. However, based on the scope of these corrective actions, Jane feels Laura’s personal friendship with the manager results in a bias in Laura’s favor. Laura has begun to receive choice project assignments while Jane–despite her manager’s repeated assurances of her value to the department — is beginning to feel marginalized. Though Jane has not received any negative evaluations, she is concerned that she has fallen out of favor and may be at risk should any belt-tightening occur.
In short, Laura is well-liked, competent and appears to have set her sights on Jane as the person to climb over on her way up. Jane has asked me how to fight back.
Jane admits that she cannot match Laura’s seeming omnipresence or quantity of work. With this route closed, she sees two remaining strategies: strengthen and defend her own position, or expose and weaken Laura’s.
I’ve offered what advice I can but I’ve never been in someone’s cross hairs like this. Is the better course here to attack the chinks in her competitor’s armor? If so–how?
OFFICE-POLITICS REPLY BY DR. RICK BRANDON
Dear Abby (Concerned Advisor),
You sound like a caring, considerate, high-integrity contributor yourself, so firstly, please make sure that YOU don’t fall out of favor with Laura or go on her you-know-what list, since political operators like Laura are often facile at sniffing out perceived allies and enemies, and are quick to make judgments of “You’re either with me or against me.” Do not write anything to Jane, rather keep your input verbal.
Is Laura Overly-Political?
As you can detect, we assess Laura as not only an over-achiever, but also as possibly a bit Overly-Political. We say “possibly,” since she may just be “borderline overly political,” because it’s unclear whether she’s truly doing anything unethical even though she’s clearly self-serving. The tricky thing is that while she’s jockeying for position as many do, it’s tough to make a case that she is doing things that really harm the company, given that you describe Laura as very competent, hard-working, well-liked, and productive. So, just make sure that your assessment of her as over the line does not say more about you or Jane being UNDER-Political–– Yes, there is such a thing, quite common when good, humble people lump together “decent boldness” actions as being out of line. There is a balancing act of being unethical and merely striving to ensure that others in the organization see your handprint, building a power network, avoiding marginalization, becoming indispensable, networking for increased visibility, and paying attention to cultivating a corporate “buzz” (reputation and perception) as major contributor and inner circle member. Have you really examined which category characterizes Laura or have you both over-judged?
Is keeping Jane out of the loop one form of workplace sabotage?
You see, we do not view such behaviors as mutually exclusive from ethics or integrity–– again, as long as the More Political person does not become Borderline or actually OVERLY Political. We agree Laura’s behaviors of keeping Jane out of the loop on certain information is one form of workplace sabotage, since information is power. So blocking Jane from putting her handprint on important, sexy projects that possess high political stock is one way of Laura being seen more favorably. But you haven’t shared much in the way of Laura’s trashing Jane, making her look bad in meetings, or other behind-the-scenes or public sabotage; her tactics are more along the lines of just elevating herself as a clearly competitive person. So, you might advise Jane to double-check her emotional reactions to ensure she’s not judging Laura too harshly, just as we wouldn’t want to too negatively prematurely dismiss or label an aggressive salesperson without first making sure he isn’t merely being more “persistent” or “assertive” than we would be, and that perhaps he’s just committed to succeeding, as opposed to crossing the line to being manipulative or lying to get a deal like the classic, stereotypical used car salesperson (yes, I’ve gotten burned by one).
If top management were forced to choose would they opt for Laura?
Even if Laura really IS what we define as Overly-Political (we outline the behavioral clues in our book and workshop), it’s best to err on the side of not taking her on as an enemy, because you’re both acknowledging her power, alliances with key stakeholders, and her admitted substantive contribution and value to the enterprise. She’s NOT just an “Empty Suit” like a lot of extreme, truly over-the-top power tyrants, sharks, or snakes. So, top management, if forced to choose, might indeed opt for Laura.
We’d counsel playing it safer by simply advising Jane to avoid making enemies, which covers her either way (e.g. if Laura really IS unethical and Machiavellian, or if she’s simply a very competitive person trying to maneuver for her own job stability out of fears about her family, livelihood, etc.). Therefore, talk to Jane about HERSELF building key relationships, ensuring that she broadcasts her own accomplishments in the spirit of being excited about recent positive impact she was able to make versus a bragging spirit, etc. Prompt her to work on her OWN positive “buzz” rather than tearing down the reputation of Laura, and finds ways to become more involved in high-value activities.
If ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”
Jane’s strategies might even include partnering with Laura!” If ya can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” is after all an old adage that may apply if it doesn’t involve compromising Jane’s core values or self-respect. Often savvy corporate power brokers heed the advice of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Sure, if that opponent is too sleazy, then Jane could sacrifice her own reputation or feel out of integrity herself, but we just are not hearing that Laura is that over the top.
Are we off-base? Please let us know both of your reactions (or, dear friend, is “Jane” really you?)….
Thanks for writing to Office-Politics.
Rick Brandon, Ph.D., Co-author,
Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success
Rick Brandon, Ph.D. is a Co-author with Marty Seldman of Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success. Dr. Rick Brandon is CEO of Brandon Partners. He has consulted and trained tens of thousands at corporations worldwide, including Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries.
This letter was originally published in February 2009.