If you’ve ever had the unfortunate task of managing a saboteur, you know how tricky and dangerous it can be. “But wait, Brandon,” you say. “What do you mean by ‘saboteur?’ I thought saboteurs cut wires, plant bombs and generally mess up stuff?” Yep, you got it. While a corporate saboteur might not plant the kind of bombs that kill people, they set traps nonetheless. And nothing is more dangerous than a sabotaging direct report. If you are their boss, nothing pleases them more than finding ways for things blow up in your face.
“But I’m a nice person,” you plead. “Why would anyone want to be so mean to such a wonderful beautiful human being like me? I’m so wonderful that I should be on a Hallmark card.” You are beautiful, but I’m sorry to say, a sabotaging direct report doesn’t care. There are several reasons why you might end up stuck with a sabotaging direct report. Here are some of the most common that I see:
You took their job – I hear story after story of bosses who get tapped for a job that someone else wanted and still believes he or she deserves. Maybe they were your peer at one point and now you are their boss or maybe they’ve got you beat on seniority and age. Regardless of the reason, saboteurs can emerge if they think you have something they want. They simply just need to knock you off.
You represent change – Damn the man. Sometimes saboteurs emerge wearing berets, Che Guevara t-shirts and leading rebels against change (not for change ironically). If you have been tasked with leading a big-time change initiative in a traditional workplace, you might end up with a saboteur trying to stop you.
They don’t like you – Its junior high school all over again. Heather has decided you are mean. Miguel doesn’t like your style. Steve thinks you play favorites. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it does happen. Sometimes you end up with a junior high kid stuck in an adult body working for you, and they do junior high things. They talk bad about you behind your back. They are passive aggressive in meetings. They have parties and invite everyone else in the office except for you (yes, I have seen this happen).
What do you do?
1. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Yep, I know. You don’t like this person. You don’t like the way they work. You don’t like the way they act. Heck, you probably don’t like the way they look. Get over it. The worst thing you can do for a saboteur is give them space and darkness in which to work. On top of that, most saboteurs are sabotaging because, deep down, they don’t feel heard or noticed. So, go notice them. Take them out to coffee and listen to their stories and opinions. And not just once. Meet with them at least once a week and help them to feel valued and special. It is difficult to sabotage someone who values you. Be that person.
2. Isolate them. Saboteurs are never alone. That’s the subtlety of these surface lone wolfs. Underneath the surface, they are always trying to please or impress others. Perhaps they are trying to impress your boss so they can get your job. Or perhaps they are trying to enlist more supporters to their side. Regardless, they need the validation of others to do what they do. Cut off the source. Isolate them so they truly are alone. I’ve seen managers accomplish this by changing the saboteur’s role so they have no “team” to work with. I’ve seen other managers move the saboteur’s office so they sit far away from others (just not too far from you). Just like any spy or saboteur, if you cut off their funding, they are done. Find the source of their motivation and sever the cord.
3. Fire them. If all else fails, get rid of them. If you’ve tried offering olive branches and you’ve been shunned at every turn, it’s not a good sign. And if you try to isolate them from others and they continue to find creative ways to keep the channels alive (Ex: after hour dinner parties, etc…), you’ve got a real nasty on your hands. Let them go as soon as possible and I promise you’ll see things turn around in no time. Things you didn’t realize they were sabotaging will begin to start working the right way. The skies will part and sun will shine.
Saboteurs are dangerous. Their goal is simple: to take you down. There is one more thing I need to tell you before I send you on your way. You are alone. Alone. “What?” you gasp. “This is not cool. Brandon, you are supposed to be inspirational and this is NOT inspirational. You make me want to crawl under my covers and cry.” I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t want to be a buzz-kill, but I want you to know what you are facing. Others around you are quite clear on what’s going on and they don’t want to be you or anywhere near you. They want to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. So don’t look for other direct reports to come to your side. Don’t count on it.
It’s just you.
And you know what?
That’s all you need.