If you find yourself undermined by a colleague, resist your first impulse, urges Harvard Business Review author Dorie Clark.
“Address the person and speak to them directly,” she tells HBR IdeaCast. “There is a common tendency to just assume they have malicious intentions, get angry about it and say, ‘I’m going to talk to the boss.’ Those are usually the worst starting places.”
Assuming intent is dangerous, Clark adds, and could easily backfire.
“They could be oblivious and not intending to do you harm,” she says. “They could be thinking in some misguided way that they're helping you. Make sure it's not just a big understanding. Because if it were a misunderstanding and you're the one that escalated it, then they are - quite rightly - going to hold it against you.”
Fellow HBR author Karen Dillon agrees, saying one-on-one is the best setting starting point.
“Start trying to solve the problem yourself. Bullies, they want to be confronted they want to have the advantage by getting you off-guard in front of other people. And often they’re cowards themselves,” she notes. “So having the courage to confront them privately in a respectful, professional manner may often nip the problem in the bud.”
And that, Dillon says, is your objective: “Your goal as an employee is not to have to escalate something to your boss. You want your boss to see you as a problem solver, a person who can navigate complex relationships and still get your work done.”
Yet if you try the private approach and it fails to solve the problem, Dillion says you can then kick it upstairs or try in public.
Clark notes there is one exception to settling an argument in private. “If there is a factual dispute, that’s something you should address promptly and right there,” she notes. “If somebody’s in a meeting and they say, ‘You promised me the report last Tuesday and you never sent it’, you don’t want to let that go unchallenged because that will then stand as the truth.”
Clark and Dillon acknowledge the complexity of office politics, but say it exists in every workplace and is a fact of office life you cannot – and should not – ignore.
“Playing office politics is bad,” Dillon notes. “Thinking about office politics and having a strategy for navigating it, that's important and it's actually a part of your career advancement.”
“Really, what we're talking about is relating to other people,” Clark adds. “Being cognizant of how you’re viewed, being aware of the dynamics and relationships of the people around you. That's never a bad thing.”