Dealing with the Office Saboteur

How to Deal with the Office Saboteur

I have never understood why some co-workers feel compelled to gain the upper-hand by acting like a saboteur. Is it insecurity? Possibly jealousy? Or maybe they’ve been facing challenges at home and need to take it out on someone at work.

I’m not talking about The Arrogant Bore who tries to take over your meeting or The Know-It-All who is all too happy to tell you what to do because they of course know best. I’m talking about the person who creates real havoc in your work life. I’ve come across many types of saboteurs, and I’ve grouped them into the following titles:

  • The Sniper
  • The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter
  • The Smiling Assassin

Before I talk about our 3 featured villains, I want to stress 2 very important concepts:

  1. Most people do not come to work each day with a mission to sabotage your project. So, before you act, make sure that you’re reading the situation correctly.
  2. Most important, do not take things personally. I repeat, do not take things personally. Bad behavior at work is the result of many different factors.

Always address the behavior in a professional and objective manner, citing facts to back up your observations.

Now, on to our bad guys.

The Sniper

This saboteur throws you a curve ball or directly opposes you (out of the blue) at a meeting. The Sniper seems to like striking in public, where they can do the most damage.

In my experience, The Sniper is often motivated by the need to have some control over what is going on or what is being discussed. This saboteur is best diffused by including him in pre-meeting discussions. I ran into one of these guys during a consulting job for the government, where I was a project manager.

At a major status briefing, when I came to a statement concerning his area, he sabotaged my briefing by saying the facts I reported were wrong. I didn’t say anything negative about his area, but he found it necessary to degrade me in the meeting anyway.

The next week, before the status meeting, I met with him and explained what I was going to report. I asked him if my report on his area met with his approval. I also made a point of asking him if I could count on his support at the meeting. He agreed, and I never had further trouble with him.

All he wanted was to be recognized and offered some deference. After I started looping him in prior to meetings, he turned into one of my most effective supporters.

The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter

This saboteur can create quite a bit of havoc when she has a beef with you. The Passive-Aggressive Disrupter comes to you in confidence and tells you something negative that another person said about you.

I’ve found the most effective way of dealing with this behavior is not to act on the information you receive. I worked with a woman several years ago, when I was managing a team of 125 analysts. One day, my co-worker approached me and told me that someone complained to her about one of my team members.

I decided I wasn’t going to play this game. I told my co-worker that if someone has an issue with a member of my team, then that person must come to me and discuss it themselves. I do not engage in watercooler talk and react to hearsay.

After this incident, I never had this sort of problem again, and people started coming directly to me with issues.

The Smiling Assassin

This saboteur can be one of the toughest to deal with, because on the surface, this person is nice to you and in agreement with you. Then, when you least expect it, The Smiling Assassin undermines you with your co–workers when you’re not around.

I have found a couple of ways to deal with this threat without resorting to an HR intervention:

  • Direct confrontation
  • Enlist co-worker help
  • Cultivate your network

Confronting The Smiling Assassin requires cool professionalism on your part. Approach him and tell him that what you heard he said. Give him a chance to explain or discuss the problem directly. Stay calm. Don’t get emotional. Listen objectively. If there some truth to the criticism, own it and work to correct it. If there is no truth, you have effectively shut this back-corner talk down by bringing it out in the open.

Enlisting co-worker help is a less confrontational strategy. Hopefully, you have co-workers that you are comfortable approaching for help. Ask them to shut down the conversation or come to your defense any time The Smiling Assassin speaks ill of you. This shows that negativity falls on deaf ears, and that soon stops the behavior.

Cultivating your network undermines The Smiling Assassin. I faced a situation many years ago where I was in line for a promotion. I found out after the selection meeting that a particular VP who didn’t like me vetoed the promotion. I confronted my Smiling Assassin and asked what I could do to improve his opinion before the next promotional cycle. He hemmed and hawed, and I figured out that there was little chance that he would change his mind.

I made a special effort to engage the Senior VP of that group and to worked to impress him. After the next promotion meeting, my network told me that the Smiling Assassin again tried to derail my promotion. But now, I had the Senior VP on my side and his vote overruled the other. I got the promotion. Afterwards, I avoided The Smiling Assassin as much as I could for the rest of my career at that company.

Closing Thoughts

Many times, workplace challenges are self-inflicted. Learn to honestly assess your own behavior before you blame others’ bad behavior on your negative outcomes. But, if you’ve done your soul-searching and you still think the problem is not yours, don’t become a victim and have faith in your power.

Always remember to stay professional, don’t waste energy taking things personally and try not to go over to the dark side yourself.

If you’ve run into a different type of Saboteur that you’d like to discuss, leave a comment and let’s see if we can add some more coping mechanisms to this post.


Gerri Slama Grove


Gerri Slama Grove


  1. Christianne says:

    Great reviews. Can you help me with a type of saboteur, the line manager, that likes to to talk and talk to convince you that he has the best idea, even if you know that’s not the case and makes me feel powerless to defend not only my idea but also my team’s? He loves to do the talking and doesn’t let you out of his office until you “accept” what he wants to be done.

    • Gerri Grove says:

      Hi Christianne. Thanks for the great comment.

      This is a tough one; especially if he’s your boss. Since I’m not sure of your situation, I’ll be a little windy and answer 3 ways:
      1) assuming he’s your boss,
      2) assuming he’s a co-worker,
      and 3) assuming you’re his manager.

      1) If this is your boss, it can be hard to force your opinion. To be effective at convincing your boss that you’re right, you must present him with hard facts and not just opinion. You should also try to frame your arguments to show the potential negative impact the decision can have on your boss. You can brainstorm on your own, or use your team to help you come up with key, factual arguments of why his idea won’t work. For example, I had a boss long ago that wanted us to change a naming convention that our customer had used for years to represent the year for a promotion. I tried to convince him it was a bad idea to change, but I didn’t use facts. I lost the argument, and when we delivered, the customer was so angry that we almost lost the contract and my boss was fired. Faced with this situation today, I would have looked for support online. I just now searched “Why you shouldn’t change something your customers have done for decades” online and found an article that provided me with a good argument tactic, Today, I would have gone back to the boss and said that fundamental change can be tough for a customer, so to be safe, we should run the change by the customer first to avoid issues when we deliver. This may or may not have worked, but it would have been better than simply presenting my opinion. If that doesn’t work, you can always take your argument up the line if you are truly convinced it’s a bad choice. This can be dangerous but it sometimes works. Just be sure you have the facts for the upline manager. Finally, if nothing works, you unfortunately have to accept the decision and move on. You should use an email to your boss to document the arguments you presented in case there are repercussions later. This action alone may give your boss pause and make him more willing to listen to you. Phew. I am indeed long-winded today.

      2) If this is a co-worker, use the same tactic of presenting facts and at some point, simply walk away from the argument. Be sure to speak to your manager or the project manager about the discussion to make sure you have agreement and support for your position.

      3) If this is coming from a subordinate, give him a limited time to present his argument, then tell him, you’ve heard and understood his point of view, but you’ve made your decision and the discussion is over. Be firm!

      In any of these situations, the secret is to remember that you are good at what you do and you have power. Speak from a position of surety and confidence in your opinion, and don’t let your co-worker, boss, subordinate make you feel less than you are. You can’t change someone else, but you can change your own attitude and be true to yourself.

      One final thought (disclaimer). I am not a psychologist but am speaking from years of experience so hopefully these suggestions will work for you too. Let me know if you need anything more.

      • Christianne says:

        Thanks for the quick reply! It is about my boss I was talking about. He is really good to come up with arguments and reasons (including the politics behind his arguments) to justify his approach. The problem is that only his solution to a problem is the right one and he doesn’t listen to others (not only me but other co-workers). We know that customers don’t have great opinions about him but he (although says he is part of the problem) thinks others are more responsible for the critical situation we are in. Sounds familiar?

        • Gerri Grove says:

          I empathize. If you are in a large organization, you can always go to HR and see what they suggest. This doesn’t seem to work as well in smaller companies – at least in my experience. It also sounds like a mentor would be a big help. Is there anyone more senior in the organization that you feel comfortable talking with? It’s very worthwhile to find someone with more experience that you can go to with issues like this. A final thought. If your boss is citing politics as a reason behind his decision, there may be some truth to it. As ridiculous as it seems, office politics are very important to be aware of. It took me a long time in my career to figure this one out. I’m not a fan of making decisions based on office politics but I’ve come to realize that sometimes you just don’t have a choice.

  2. Gennaro says:

    Hi Gerri,
    Great post, really interesting!!
    I think most of us have experience with these Saboteurs and in my opinion the worst of them is the Smiling Assasin, because if I am not present when he or she talks about me Then I cannot reply and I cannot defend myself – it’s cowardly!!

    A real interesting part of what you wrote, is that we always should be professional and we shouldn’t take things personally: I run into Agile only one year ago and I am a “young” Scrum Master (young even if I’m 44…) and for me this is one of the most difficult part of this work, I mean to don’t take things personally.
    In my opinion, this must be avoided, because when it happens, I am the saboteur!

    Thank you.

    • Gerri Grove says:

      Wonderful comment Gennaro. You are absolutely correct when you say that if you let your emotions take over, you become the saboteur. It took me a long, long time to figure out that I cannot change other people and can only keep charge of myself. Keep up the positive work!!!