It’s Not in Your Head — 4 Signs Your Coworker is Setting You Up to Fail

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May 19, 2024 at 6:36PM UTC
In most cases, it's best to navigate your professional life assuming everyone around you has the best of intentions. After all, strong teamwork and the upward career trajectory that accompanies it is built on mutual trust and respect — and expecting everyone around you to do you wrong is no way to foster either of the two. 
Lacking trust for your colleagues is also a recipe for general unease — and unhappiness — in the workplace. There's no way you can be yourself and do your best work in a way that makes you proud when you're meeting everyone with suspicion. 
But, in some scenarios, that suspicion is entirely warranted. As in the rest of the world, the workplace is home to some people who don't have your best interests at heart. It's probably not personal — they're just looking out for number one. Here are four signs you may be dealing with that situation.

1. They leave you off important meeting invites — and bring up your absence 

If your colleague is consistently (and seemingly intentionally) leaving you out of meetings or calls they own, they may be acting against your interests. This is especially true if those meetings are home to information that's critical to your success in your role or in having access to visible work. One way to know this situation may be intentional? They twist the knife by bringing up your absence in group settings. Like, if in a team meeting, they say: "Oh, we talked about this critical concept on Tuesday — Norah, can you explain what was said?" or "Oh, this was covered in a conversation I had with Norah and Lindsay last week — here's the gist of what we said." 
If this is happening to you, it's best to broach it directly in a non-confrontational way. If there's a comment made about your absence in a group setting, ask after the meeting to be included on meetings about the topic moving forward. Or, if you see important meetings on the calendar you haven't been invited to, reach out in an unassuming way ("I was looking at your calendar to set a one-on-one and noticed...") and ask to be added. If you're still being iced out, it may be time to take the issue to your manager. Instead of positioning it as an emotional challenge, say that you need more opportunities to communicate on whatever topic you're missing out on and you believe being added to the formally meetings will help you complete your responsibilities. If your manager objects, there may be a good reason you're left off that you weren't aware of. Air that out in your conversation. 

2. They micromanage you — in front of your boss

Micromanagement from lateral members of your team always feels a bit insidious, but it is more than mundane if the micromanagement happens in spaces that undermine your credibility as a professional. If your colleague is calling you out on minute details or asking cutting questions about your work in a group setting — especially in front of your boss or influential team members you don't interact with often — it's a red flag. This behavior is especially telling if the criticism truly isn't constructive to the work that's being done, such as mean comments on the color of your PowerPoint background. Often, you look like the bad guy if you act defensive, but you look like a pushover if you don't defend yourself. It's a lose-lose situation. 
If you're managing this relational landmine, it's best to approach it head on, if possible. Talk to your colleague and let them know that you feel anxious presenting in group settings when comments and questions are made during the presentation. Ask for them to be an ally to you by looking over the work beforehand — or by saving their questions and comments a private setting where you can put their words into action. Obviously, you can choose to heed their advice or not in these smaller settings, but it makes the conversation easier to navigate when you're managing it one-on-one. 

3. They take on more project than they can handle — and make themselves the martyr

If your colleague volunteers for everything then makes their long hours about your work ethic, they don't have your best interest at heart. (They probably also aren't very self aware!) While biting off more than they can chew may make your colleague feel good about their role at the company, it does nothing for building or preserving the rest of your colleagues' professional reputations. If they blame you for a lack of quality in the work they volunteered for or suggest to your team that they bust your back to pick up your slack, they're willfully throwing you under the bus instead of taking responsibility for their actions. That's an even larger red flag. 
Managing this barrier is best done by putting yourself out there. Vocally ask for more opportunities and volunteer to help on projects they claim, especially if you anticipate them making a rude comment about your credibility as a professional. This sets the record straight through your actions. And remember, if your colleagues are spreading rumors that are detrimental to your reputation, you have every right to make a formal complaint about it. 

4. They take credit for your work — and horde the visible work for themselves 

A continuation of the above point, if your colleague claims all the visible work for themselves — and takes credit for any visible work you have had the chance to accomplish — they quite obviously don't prioritize supporting your success. Because the most successful collaboration and innovation are based in trust, a good colleague empowers their team members to do their share of important work. A bad colleague hordes important work. A mean-spirited colleague takes hoarding visibility to the extreme by stretching the truth. 
If you're managing this situation, be vocal with your manager about the steps you need to take to have more visible opportunities. Volunteer, ask for critical feedback and ask about what work can help you develop. If you run into someone who steals your accomplishments, try to be upfront about the important work you've done without denigrating your colleague outright. Be specific and angle your comment not as a defensive response, but as a way to contribute to the conversation in some way. For example, say: "Jessica, I completely agree this project is going to be crucial to our strategy for the next month. The data set I provided was particularly insightful for this reason." 

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