How to deal with a coworker who undermines you (8 methods)

Updated 21 July 2022

Satisfaction at work depends not only on being happy with the work you do but also on your environment. The relationships you develop with coworkers are a major contributor to how happy you are at work and employees are often more productive, creative and collaborative when they have a high level of job satisfaction. When conflict or challenging relationships arise in the workplace, it's crucial that you're able to process and overcome the issue in a way that doesn't affect your performance and success.

In this article, we discuss the various ways that a coworker can undermine you and explain how to deal with a coworker who undermines you.

Related: Integrity in the workplace: definition, examples and tips

How can a coworker undermine you?

Undermining behaviour from a colleague involves them saying things or acting in a way that makes others question your professionalism, knowledge, abilities or work ethic. This behaviour can not only damage your reputation and sabotage your professional development, but also have a negative impact on your mental health. Undermining behaviour can be difficult to identify as one specific action, as more often it's a combination of many small actions that build into a pattern of negative behaviour towards you. Some examples of undermining behaviour include:

  • publicly and purposefully sharing mistakes you've made with others, rather than sharing feedback privately

  • interrupting when you're speaking and contradicting things you say to make others question your ideas

  • lessening the importance of your achievements or downplaying the efforts you've made to realise your accomplishments

  • making jokes about you, your work or your expertise

  • challenging your work in a negative or personal way, without providing constructive feedback

  • attacking your work ethic or values in the workplace

  • undermining the authority you have in the workplace, over a team or within a group project

  • claiming credit for work that you have done

  • keeping important information or updates from you

The most obvious consequence of a colleague undermining you at work is a breakdown of the relationship you have with the colleague. This kind of behaviour can create an inaccurate depiction of you as a peer or coworker, which damages your reputation and may even affect your relationship with other colleagues. While dealing with undermining coworkers can be difficult, finding ways to overcome this situation can help you to continue enjoying your role.

Related: Important workplace social skills

How to deal with a coworker who undermines you

If there's someone at work who is misrepresenting you or damaging your reputation, it can help to know how to deal with a coworker who undermines you. Consider these steps to help you overcome their behaviour:

1. Build your relationship

One reason a coworker may undermine you is that they're under the false impression that you don't enjoy working with them. While you may not have done anything to give them this impression, it's important to maintain strong relationships with your colleagues. If you notice that someone is treating you negatively, find ways to get to know them and rebuild your relationship on a more personal level. Some things you could do to improve your relationship include:

  • make small talk, such as asking how their weekend went

  • show an interest in their hobbies

  • ask them out to lunch

  • offer to make them a coffee

  • approach them to collaborate on a project

Remaining friendly and offering acts of kindness despite a colleague's negative behaviour usually results in a more positive outcome or change in their attitude towards you.

Related: What does collaboration mean in the workplace?

2. Address the issue directly

Being direct and approaching your coworker directly with your thoughts on the situation may prevent the issue from developing further. You can ask your coworker if they're available for a private meeting with you, in which you can have an honest conversation about how their words and actions affect you in the workplace. They may not be aware of the impact of their actions, so addressing them directly can help them see things from your perspective. Consider sharing specific and recent examples of things they've said or done so they're more aware of their actions.

If the behaviour of your colleague is too strong or confrontational for you to feel comfortable approaching them, consider speaking with your manager about the issue or asking someone in human resources to mediate the conversation between the two of you.

3. Ignore the behaviour

Some situations may be too severe to simply ignore, but if your coworker's behaviour is minor and is not affecting your work or relationships with others, you may decide to ignore the bad behaviour. In some circumstances, ignoring their behaviour can allow you to move forward and focus on your work to the best of your abilities.

You may choose to remain amicable with your problem coworker and be polite when you interact or work with them, but ultimately it may not be worth addressing their actions if you can ignore them and continue to work well. If this individual is someone you don't work closely with, it may be easy to keep your distance, only interact with them if required and keep a positive attitude.

Related: What are conflict resolution skills? Definition and examples

4. Ask your colleague for clarification

When your coworker questions your work or jokes about your performance negatively, you can ask them what they mean by their statement. This request for clarification can cause them to reflect on what they said and how negatively you may have perceived it. If they're publicly undermining you, this request for clarification also demonstrates to your peers that you don't appreciate the way your coworker has portrayed you and can encourage them to support you should the issue continue.

If you decide to ask for clarification, remember to remain calm and professional to prevent conflict from escalating. By approaching your colleague calmly, they're able to receive your question, consider how their words may affect you and respond honestly. They may not realise how their words or actions affect you, so bringing it to their attention can improve your professional relationship with them for the better.

5. Remain confident in your abilities

Experiencing undermining behaviour from a colleague can cause stress and make you doubt your abilities. It's important to remind yourself of the skills, expertise and value you bring to the workplace and why your manager decided to hire you.

If your coworker is affecting your confidence, it may negatively impact your performance, but if you're able to remain confident, you can continue to excel in your career and still enjoy the position you're in. Your continued confidence and high performance can also show your colleague that their behaviour does not affect you and so they may no longer have any motivation to continue.

Read more: How to build confidence at work

6. Identify the reason for the animosity

To help you find the best way to approach the situation you're in, consider the reasons why your coworker may be treating you in this manner. There can be many motives behind undermining behaviour, including jealousy, competition and projection of their own insecurities. By understanding the reasoning behind your colleague's behaviour, you may be better equipped to approach them in a way that allows for a more positive relationship and mutual respect to develop.

7. Share your concerns

Seeking support from a coworker, manager or member of human resources can be helpful if you don't feel comfortable approaching the problem coworker directly. If you decide to discuss the issue with somebody at work, ensure they treat the issue with confidentiality and prepare to provide specific examples of the undermining behaviour you're experiencing. Make a note of each incident in a diary or notepad so that you have a record of the actions of your colleague. Some important details to note include:

  • specific actions or words

  • the date and time of the incident

  • any witnesses to the incident

If you don't feel you're able to discuss the situation with someone within your organisation, consider approaching a trusted friend, family member or mentor for advice. Unfortunately, undermining behaviour is not a rare occurrence, but this does mean that it's likely someone that may have had a similar experience in the past, so they may be able to advise you on how to approach the situation.

Related: Why you should be looking for a mentor

8. Leave the department or company

While leaving your role may be a worst-case scenario solution, in some cases it can be the best way to overcome undermining behaviour. If undermining behaviour from coworkers results from toxic company culture, the best option may be to leave the organisation entirely. If the above steps do not put a stop to your colleague's undermining behaviour and you're not receiving support or advice from colleagues, your manager or HR, it may be time to consider leaving the organisation to find a more supportive workplace.

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