I recently read some research that revealed many workers in the study were distrustful of their colleagues. They believed given half a chance, these co-workers would steal customers and belittle others to the boss in order to get ahead.
I get it. I've worked in places like that, and it's not fun. You spend lots of energy trying to protect your turf, when that time would be better spent doing your actual work.
But we humans are geared for survival. We don't take kindly to others trying to encroach on what we believe to be our territory. We don't like feeling manipulated by someone else for their own gain.
While you don't want to accept such behavior (and you shouldn't), it can be a tricky to come up with a way to keep such colleagues in line without hurting your career. No boss wants to be brought into the middle of a turf war, so you've got to be proactive in handling the situation professionally without running to the boss with your complaints.
If you've got a colleague who is so intent on getting ahead and is willing to step on you in the process, you need to:
- Stop being an enabler. I once had a new colleague who I was happy to bring up to speed on different projects. But after several weeks, I noticed that she continually came to my office, plopped down on a chair and said, "So, tell me about XYZ" or said, "Who can I call about this issue?" We had extensive databases on everything she wanted to know and I told her about them several times. But it obviously was much easier for her if I told her what she needed to know. So, wanting to be helpful, I complied. Finally, I said, "You know, I'm right in the middle of something. I think you need to go through our database. It has everything you need." Then I shut up. I had to do this a couple more times, but pretty soon she got the message. (She turned to a colleague in the office next door to mine and tried the same tactic -- he soon directed her to the database.) My point is that while you want to help when you can, you're not doing her any favors if you do her work. Your work will suffer, and her work will suffer. That's something the boss isn't going to appreciate.
- Confront misinformation. The minute you hear that someone is subtly criticizing you to others, step up. It can be uncomfortable, of course, but it's going to be much more uncomfortable when this person ruins your reputation with the boss or the company leaders. Go directly to this person, and ask, "Barb, I heard that you said I was late in getting my report in, which jeopardized the whole project. If this is true, I'd really like you to explain to me what you meant." It could be that indeed, you were late, but that was because the client asked for a delay while more information was collected. Clear the air immediately when you hear such misinformation and let the person know you aren't going to let it continue. "I know you'll want to clear this up immediately and let others know you were misinformed," you say.
- Expose the weasels. It can really take you off guard when you're attacked by a colleague who does it as a way to make you look weak or ineffective. Sometimes this can be done subtly ("Well, you know Jim has a tendency to mess things up! Ha, ha!") or more outright ("I think we need fresh eyes on this project and it's time that Jim worked on other things.") Don't let it slide, or you'll just empower the person. You can try: "I think I just misheard what you said. Would you like to rephrase that?" Or, "I think that was inappropriate and I know you're professional enough not to say it again." Or, simply eye roll at the person like you can't believe how childish he or she is being.
No one likes everyone in the workplace all the time. That's just a fact of life. But in order to get along with everyone -- and preserve your career -- you need to communicate openly with people so that you don't get involved in an unending turf battle.