I was treated to such a nice Mothers’ Day this year. While enjoying my breakfast in bed, I watched a really interesting documentary on the English castle at Dover. (This was the trifecta for me: documentary, about anything British, with ties to World War II history!) The show detailed the insurmountable walls and impenetrable defenses of this formidable castle, which dates back almost 2000 years.

Ironically, it was the strength of this castle that made it vulnerable. So much effort had gone into ensuring there was no way over the walls, the only hope for the enemy was to go under them. Intruders dug tunnels beneath the fortifying walls of castles until, when the tunnels were large enough, the fortress walls collapsed under their own weight; allowing the attackers to scramble up the rubble that remained; gaining entry to the inner keep. This practice became known as undermining.

I’ve used the word “undermined” so many times without ever thinking about where it came from. But the moment I heard, it made so much sense; and inspired me to write about how and why people on teams undermine each other.

How you might be undermined

If you appear to be too strong, too impressive, too difficult to take on directly, your jealous colleagues might go underground. Here are some of the ways people undermine each other.

Introducing Doubt: It’s possible that all the stakeholder management you’re doing is being eroded as someone who is invested in your failure quietly introduces doubt about your plan or your ability to execute that plan.

Failing to Take Action: Another way that you can be undermined is when people choose not to implement your plan or implement it half-heartedly. You think that you’re on solid ground when actually things are starting to sink.

Spreading Lies: Gossip is an insipid method that might be used to undermine you by spreading rumors and innuendo that don’t necessarily have a basis in fact.

Hatching a Parallel Plan: Desperate adversaries have been known to launch a competing initiative to yours in hopes of secretly rallying important stakeholders to a different plan, thus scooping yours.

Don’t build walls in the first place

If you feel like you have been undermined or maybe even that you’re a target for such passive-aggressive behavior, take a moment to ask whether you invite attack. If you’re being honest, can you see any evidence that you’re building walls?

  • My plan for success excludes some people. When my team and I win, someone will be perceived as the loser.
  • I project a positive image regardless of whether I’m struggling on the inside.
  • My over-confidence might provoke some to want to take me down a peg.
  • I resist the changes introduced by others in my organization. I’ve built a bit of a fortress around my team and myself.
  • I receive recognition and accolades that might cause envy from my teammates. Some might begrudge me my continued success.
  • I take credit for outcomes that required input from many people

Be on the lookout

A few good, healthy team practices should reduce the likelihood that you’ll be undermined or at the very least, expose the efforts before they make too much headway.

  1. Engage key stakeholders in an open conversation about their goals and their concerns. If the drawbridge is open, it will be less likely that anyone will go underground.
  2. Gain indirect feedback. While I’m not suggesting that you need spies trying to infiltrate an enemy camp, I would encourage you to ask people who aren’t as close to your project as you are whether there might be any sources of resistance you should look out for. In many organizational cultures, people will be more likely to deliver a difficult message indirectly.
  3. Invite them in: One reason team members try to undermine you is that they don’t see another way into the castle. If you provide a way for them to be part of the project and give them access to some of the spoils of success, they won’t need to take you on.

Being undermined is a horrible feeling. Just as you think you’ve built yourself an impenetrable position, the walls come crumbling down. Remember, you’ll only be undermined by someone who perceives you as the enemy. Do what it takes to make sure your coworkers see you as a strong ally.

Further Reading

Tools to stop passive-aggressive behavior

Counterintuitive advice on building trust

Why are women so mean to other women?