Case study – How to deal with people who undermine you


Published: 11 Mar 2018

2018 Compassionate Assertiveness

It’s one of the most common things I come across in my work. In nearly every business I go into someone is being undermined by their boss or work colleague. Almost everyone you meet has someone in their personal life who seems to take pleasure in undermining them, and often it’s the people who are meant to, or profess to love and admire you the most!.

So how can you tell for sure if you’re being undermined?

The easiest way, is to recognise when you have received the incoming ’emotional ping’. The ping hurts – it’s meant to. If you feel affronted, embarrassed, ridiculed, annoyed –  then you’ve probably been pinged.

One of the hardest to hear cases for me lately was a woman in a huge organisation who has basically been undermined to the point of bullying for years by a work colleague. It is really easy for her to tell this is happening. Other people stop talking when she walks into the room and she knows that new gossip has been spread about her.

Kinder, more loyal colleagues actually tell her that the under-miner is talking about her and what she is saying. But, so far, she has done nothing about it. So far, her colleagues have done nothing about it – they are fully enabling the under-miner.  When I asked what she has done to try and resolve it she said, “I’ve surrendered! It’s been going on for too long, and too many people are involved and supporting it now.”

Undermining can sound like a ‘back handed’ compliment – essentially an insult disguised as a compliment. It can take the form of of belittling you (especially in front of others that are important to you), or condescending behaviour which can come across as superiority, or patronising.

It can feel like exclusion, under-miners leave you out intentionally to push your buttons.

Under-miners are competitive, and will sabotage you if they can to make you look bad, so they look more impressive. They will not always stop at that, and will be quite happy to take credit for the things you have done, or diminish or ignore the things you have done well. You may hear comments like, “Well, you did it, congratulations, I didn’t think you would, you usually miss deadlines.”

They overstep the natural order of things and will ingratiate themselves with the boss to undermine you and directly affect decisions that are made about you. In the case of the woman earlier who has been undermined for years, the under-miners boss actually thinks she is great, they are ‘friends’. This leaves the ‘victim’ with nowhere to go, as every time she brings it up, it is conveniently swept aside, or brushed off as an over exaggeration or sensitivity.

So what can you do?

Well, the good news is that compassionate assertiveness works spectacularly well on under-miners. Communication is your first line of defense with these people. Stage one of the model is where you need to live when in the presence of an under-miner, with a generous dash of stage three (consequences) if you need back up.

Remember stage one flips unreasonable, cruel, toxic behaviour right back to the person and makes them accountable for their words and actions. Stage three tells them the consequence of their actions if they don’t stop it.

Here’s some tactics you could try in stage one:

“What makes you think that?” Make them tell you out loud why they have that opinion. It stops them in their tracks as they are not used to being challenged. If they say “Because I do, or I don’t know” then keep going in stage one.

“Why would you say that?” Again make them accountable.

“Do you really believe what you just said?” If they say “yes I do” (usually accompanied by a condescending tone) then ask “Why”

“Why do you think you can comment on my work? This is a great one, as unless you directly report to them they will have no answer for this one.

“Do you think that is reasonable?” If they say yes, say “How is that reasonable?” Again there is usually no sane answer to that one.

You see where I’m going with this. You keep under-miners in stage one until they have had an emotional ping back from you, you have put them in their place and made them account for their actions to you (and anyone else who is listening). Let them have a taste of their own medicine and be heard by others explaining their behaviour towards you.

Here’s how stage one of the Compassionate Assertiveness in Action© was designed to work – the answer they provide to the question you put to them would sound so outrageous and ridiculous that it stops them in their tracks. Remember at all times that these people survive and thrive because NO ONE challenges them. The minute they are challenged all bets are off. They are accountable. They have to explain themselves. They have to justify why they are being intentionally mean and undermining….and they don’t like it. It hurts. It pings them back.

If you find yourself stalling in stage one, then head straight to stage three – consequences.

“If you continue to do that, I will make a formal complaint about you today.” Instant retribution.

“If you really believe that, then I’ll need to seek further guidance from the CEO and see what she thinks!” Go above the under-miners head and make their behaviour transparent.

“I’m stopping this meeting now until you behave professionally.” Take away their power.

I know how difficult for more passive people this corrective coaching is, but if you surrender then you accept it. I’ve heard people give advice such as “just ignore it” and “don’t let it get to you”, and I absolutely don’t agree. If you accept it then you just enable the behaviour, and, you inflict it on someone else if the under-miner isn’t stopped.

Compassionate Assertiveness works on the premise that you are helping the bully/under-miner as much as you are helping yourself. You are teaching them how to be a better person. How to behave in a more compassionate way. How their behaviour affects others.


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