Toxic coworkers and bosses are a lot like toxic friends — they tend to make you feel bad about yourself, encourage bad habits, prevent you from reaching your goals, and never really have your back when you need them most. In other words, they have no problem sabotaging your career, relationships, or anything else in your life.
But even the most clever of individuals tend to leave breadcrumbs that hint at their true personalities, meaning you can spot the signs of sabotage and do something about it before it’s too late.
Sabotage in a professional context means someone is undermining your work or credibility, according to Bryn Panee Burkhart, an executive coach on The Muse and the founder of Bright Evolution leadership coaching. It’s a formula for a toxic work environment, and a surefire way to deplete your self-esteem, well-being, and productivity.
Three types of people sabotage their coworkers, bosses, or direct reports at work, according to Eloise Eonnet, a Muse career coach and the founder of communication coaching service Eloquence:
People who are simply unhappy: “It could be someone who's going through a hard time. It could be someone who’s deeply jealous of you,” she said. “We can still blame them for it, but it’s not actually malicious.” Burkhart added that these individuals are often dealing with their own insecurities and projecting them onto others.
People who are “viciously strategic”: As Eonnet put it, they put themselves above all else and aren’t afraid to step on their colleagues to achieve their goals.
People who have no idea they’re even sabotaging anyone: They’re “someone who is really honestly doing what they think is best, and you just happen to be in the wake of those decisions,” Eonnet said.
Regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, sabotage often leads to a situation where you’re constantly watching your back, feeling alienated from your team, and/or experiencing little to no growth.
The sooner you catch a sabotager in the act, the better — you’ll be able to quickly turn the ship around and make your workplace a more pleasant, collaborative place to be.
These signs, separately or together, could be an indication someone is out to get you in your office:
Do they make it harder or more time consuming to do your job then it needs to be? Do you hear from other colleagues that they don’t have to take extra steps on projects like you do? It could be because your colleague or boss is making up different rules for you so that you fall behind.
Maybe your coworker or boss is claiming your ideas as their own or taking credit for the overtime you pulled last week. By passing off your efforts and results as their own, they're making people wonder what exactly it is you do all day and getting ahead on your merits while you get left behind.
If you’re noticing your coworker or boss tends to cut you off a lot or brushes off your ideas or accomplishments in front of others, that could be a sign they’re looking to keep you in your place and avoid giving you recognition.
It’s not necessarily intentional if someone leaves you off of a meeting or email chain once or twice, but if it’s happening consistently, it may be more than just a case of forgetfulness. Being left out of key discussions can hurt both your performance and your professional image — something your sabotaging team member likely knows.
Does your coworker act professional and even kind to your face, but then gossip about you to others as soon as you’re out of earshot? Does your boss make plans or promises when they’re with you, but then never acts on them, changes their mind, pretends they never said that, or tells their managers something completely different? It’s possible you’re being lied to or even gaslit. These kinds of team members may try to get close to you or act like your friend just to gain your trust, but really, they’re thinking about themselves.
If you’re having a hard time recognizing sabotage, Eonnet said the best place to look is inward. “At the end of the workday, are you feeling empowered and supported, or are you feeling like the work that you do is leading nowhere — or worse, making you feel like you wanna burst into tears?” she said. If it’s the latter two, that could be a sign someone in your office is holding you back or trying to hurt your confidence — especially if these feelings always tend to come up when you interact or collaborate with a particular teammate.
Maybe you were promoted over them, they’re jealous of your relationship with your boss or another team member, or they just think they could do your job better than you. No matter the reason, if someone makes comments about how they’re coming after you or your job — even as a “joke” — that’s a sign in flashing neon.
Signs sound familiar? Here's what you can do about it.
Maybe your manager, for the second time this month, presented your latest idea for a social media campaign at an all-hands meeting without bothering to mention you came up with it in the first place. Or maybe that bossy coworker of yours made you stay late redoing a client report while your teammates got a free pass for making the same mistakes.
You might be stewing over the injustice and ready to burst. But nothing good can come out of blowing up at the person — and it could make you look like the villain.
The first step after pinpointing sabotaging behaviors is to take a beat. “When we’re sitting by ourselves behind our computer in our kitchen or bedroom, as we do these days, it’s really easy to let our imaginations fly and our emotions take over,” Eonnet said.
Find ways to release your anger or frustration: Go for a walk, call a friend or family member to vent, buy yourself a treat, whatever works for you. Only when you’re calm and collected is it worth taking the next step.
Assume good intent and try to put yourself in their shoes. For example, Burkhart said, your boss may be acting in ways that feel like sabotage because of the pressures they’re feeling from higher-ups.
That social campaign they forgot to give you credit for in front of the whole company? Maybe they’re so focused on hitting metrics it slipped their mind. Or they’ve been getting flack for the team’s performance from their manager, so they needed your win to be everyone’s win.
This isn’t to say that you should just let it go — rather, understanding a person’s motivations will put you in the right mindset and provide you with context for how to approach addressing the issue.
Before you confront your colleague or boss — yes, you’re going to have to talk to the person about their behavior like an adult — it’s helpful to think through the outcome you’re hoping to achieve.
Do you want your boss to listen to you more? Do you need your colleague to loosen up on all the rules? Do you wish you’d get more recognition for your work? Only once you’ve nailed that down are you ready to script out the dialogue, Burkhart said.
Burkhart recommends her clients use a statement-question framework whenever they’re faced with a difficult situation or conversation. “You clearly state what you want to say (your intention), and then you ask the question,” she explained.
For example, if someone keeps interrupting you in team huddles, making it seem like they want to be the loudest and smartest voice in the room, you might say, “I’m noticing in meetings you cut me off before I can get my point across. I’m assuming this is not your intention, but I just want to have a conversation about it and be open. Is that something you’ve noticed?”
“You’re inviting a perspective and opinion, and you’re not just putting something upon someone,” Burkhart said. “It also means they have to answer,” she added.
When they respond, you can use the same framework to address your solution, such as, “Thank you for your perspective, I’m so glad we talked through this. It would be great in the future if I could have the floor before you chime in. Does that work for you?”
“The key is to be clear about what you want to accomplish in the meeting,” Eonnet said. “This helps really focus the conversation, make sure that you make progress in it, and ensure that you don't sound like you're complaining: You are helping find a solution.”
“‘I’ statements are always better than ‘you’ statements,” Burkhart added. And remember that you don’t need to be friends by the end of the discussion—you just need to be able to work together effectively.
Before going into the conversation with your sabotaging colleague or boss, it may be wise to run your script by someone you trust at work, be it a friend, someone in HR, or another leader.
You can check in with them to see if the behavior you’re describing is something they’ve noticed, or you can “use them as a sounding board and get their two cents on how to deliver” your message, Burkhart said. If you’re particularly worried about confronting the person alone, you could ask an ally to moderate the conversation.
Don’t wait until your boss has bashed your ideas several times or a coworker has hurt your reputation with other leaders before bringing their behavior up.
“Whatever is happening, it’s not working for you. So identify quickly steps that you can take before it gets worse,” Eonnet said.
Maybe you’ve said your peace several times over and the person just keeps on sabotaging your work. When all else fails, you have to consider whether this is a situation you can handle long-term, Burkhart said.
If it’s not, “Empower yourself with a job search — start making connections, start talking to other people, start moving away from this really destructive energy that’s going to bring you down and influence how you show up in the world,” Eonnet said. “That’s an exit plan that’s yours, and that is powerful and means that you’re standing up for yourself and for what you need.”
Of course, when you go to look at other jobs, make sure you don’t end up in the same situation again. Burkhart said to ask specific, pointed questions that can get to the heart of a company or team culture, such as, “How is conflict typically handled?” “How are decisions made?” “What kinds of people succeed here?” or “If you could change anything about the culture, what would it be?”
Alyse Kalish has spent eight years reporting on careers and business news and running freelance desks at Insider and The Muse. Her work has been featured on Fast Company, Forbes, CNBC, and other major outlets. You can check out her website or follow her on Twitter @Alyslice.
Marissa Taffer, the president of business development firm M. Taffer Consulting, contributed reporting and writing to this article.