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Working in IT: 5 Tips for Dealing with Undermining Behavior

By | March 16, 2016 in Service Desk

Working in IT

Working in IT can be difficult at the best of times, with operational and organizational change often a particularly difficult “nut to crack.” We can, of course, use proven methodologies and techniques, such as those by Lewin and Kotter for organizational change or PRINCE2 and Agile for project management and development, but sometimes there is a very-human “spanner thrown in the works” – that of “undermining behavior.” And of course this does not only happen in times of change, and it does not only happen in IT, but when it does happen, it is wise to understand how to spot it and then how to deal with it.

This blog relates to a personal experience with undermining behavior and offers advice for dealing with it. IT is ultimately about people working together effectively and any such barriers to success need to be prevented wherever possible.

Undermining Behavior is Not Always Easy to Spot

A new IT procurement process had been designed in a collaborative and inclusive manner, tested with multiple focus groups, and people trained across all the IT teams. Yet, for some reason, one IT team could not reach the desired metrics and outcomes of the new process.

We retrained that IT team. But there was no improvement. We talked with the IT team’s leader regarding the importance of the new procurement process. We were assured that the IT team understood the importance of the new process. We even received a commitment that the IT team’s leader would actively provide feedback on where his team was having difficulty with the new process. And, true to his word, he did provide specific occurrences showing where and how the new procurement process caused undue burden on his team.

It just didn’t make sense. Why did the new procurement process work for all other IT teams but seemed to fail only in this team? The data supported what the team leader was telling us – the new procurement process was unworkable for his team.

Sadly Firefighters Can Make the Best Arsonists

Thankfully though, the mystery was solved through a chance meeting with a team member from the affected team. The team member told me that the team leader did not like the new procurement process. Because the new process took the team leader out of the role of “IT hero.”

The team leader would no longer get to “save the day” for the customer, as the new procurement process made the data and outcomes more transparent. And so the team leader instructed his team to ask additional questions and to gather extra data that did not have a defined procedure for processing – thus making the new process untenable, time-wise, for the procurement task at hand. The team members would then ask what step to take with the additional data to which the team leader would reply “Don’t worry about it, I’ll handle it.” The team leader was undermining the new process to retain his position as an IT hero. The undermining of the new process for “personal gain” had caused myself and colleagues wasted time and effort, and had put the new cost-saving process in jeopardy for his own selfish reasons.

Hopefully, a similar experience has not happened to you. But if it has, or if you think it may, here are some tips to help spot and deal with such undermining behaviors.

What is “Undermining Behavior”?

A common definition for the term “undermine” is “to erode the base or foundation” or “to weaken or damage (someone or something), especially gradually or insidiously.” So to undermine is to weaken the position, goals, or success of something or someone – with “undermining behavior” in the workplace being the acts of another that are intended to either derail you and your intentions, or to promote the other person’s agenda at the expense of yours. It’s often done in an underhanded, secretive, or manipulative way with the aim of preventing you from achieving your objectives.

There are some common signs that you, your IT team, or your work are being undermined:

  • You feel that you have to defend your position. When you engage with someone undermining you, you may feel that you have to defend your statements, thoughts, and concepts. You may feel like you have to prove yourself, but oddly you don’t know why.
  • You feel “oversold.” The person undermining you might be very nurturing. They may tell you how much they care. They routinely explain how supportive they are and how they are helping you succeed. You feel comfort in their words but wonder why they are continually bringing the topic up for discussion
  • You get “backhanded” compliments. A backhanded compliment is one that makes you feel good when you hear it, but then it gets worse the longer you think about it. For example, “You did well to recover that IT service after your mistake” – which on the face of it is recognizing your sterling efforts, but was it really said to point out that the adverse IT, and potentially business, situation was caused by your mistake?
  • You are presented with desirable alternatives. The person undermining you offers alternatives that seem to better position you to reach your goals or objectives. However they are merely providing temptation to change to something that will ultimately favor their plan over yours.

What to Do if You Feel that You Are Being Undermined

There are a number of approaches you can take when you are, or think you are, being undermined:

  1. Validate your sensitivity. If you are highly sensitive to what others say and do, then you could potentially perceive undermining when it is not present. So if you think undermining is occurring, discretely ask other members of your IT team if these “signs” are also occurring from their perspective. People who actively undermine others rarely contain their effort to one individual.
  2. Determine why they are undermining. The person doing the undermining might have a number of reasons for the behavior. They might be jealous, wanting the power or glory they perceive you to have. They might be competitive, doing whatever is necessary to succeed. They might truly be concerned that your plan is not in the best interest of your career or good for the company. Regardless of the reason, understanding their reason, or reasons, will help you plan how to deal with the issue, especially when the underminer is a close IT colleague.
  3. Explain your goals and why they are important. There is always the possibility that the person undermining may not be aware of the behavior. You should take the time to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it, and the behavior(s) you are seeing displayed. Keeping open and transparent communications gives you the opportunity to address any real issues and should also help the person undermining to understand why their impartial participation is necessary and important. Plus you should be able to address any misconceptions and to achieve an amicable working agreement for going forward.
  4. Control the information. If it is clear that the person cannot/will not change their behavior, simply cut off the flow of information to them. Stop inviting them to meetings where possible, and keep excellent documentation on interactions with the person including the behaviors you see/experience. Escalation to a supervisor should be the option of last resort, but having a well-documented story is necessary for this step.
  5. Don’t let your frustration show. While this is much easier said than done, keeping your frustrations hidden actually undermines the activities of the person. This may also lessen their resolve to display behaviors that undermine. Sadly, showing frustration can be a fuel source for many underminers that keeps them behaving in detrimental ways.

So there you have it, what do you do when you feel that you are being undermined at work?

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Nicole Katz

About Nicole Katz

As Director of the Professional Services, Nicole strives to provide the most practical, and often-times creative, approach to successful company roll-outs of SysAid's service desk and ITSM solution. She enjoys the challenge of combining ITIL theory with real-life scenarios for her global customers. When Nicole’s not busy with all of that, she loves being in the outdoors and practicing yoga.