Outsmarting The Workplace Shark

Outsmarting The Workplace Shark

Last week I wrote an article about ambition and what a great quality it is. I love socializing with ambitious people. Their enthusiasm is contagious, they want to be heard but they also are active listeners. They are driven, engaging, and have a ton of personality. They ask for help, they share their failures, they support others with the sharing of their best practices. It’s one of my favorite human qualities and along with sense of humor, it is a non-negotiable character trait in people I spend my time with. Ambition is often what separates the good from the mediocre and the exceptional from the great.

What I didn’t include in my article in any detail was about the dark side of ambition. As I was writing that article specific examples kept creeping into my thoughts about two people I have interacted with in the past who were willing and happy to sell-out their coworkers [who were also their friends] to get slightly ahead in their career – whether it was the desire of elevated visibility with senior leadership or just to stick it to someone – they were more than happy to share their colleague’s short-comings.

The Dark Side Of Ambition

My first example – I think I have mentioned in a previous post – was an Assistant Store Manager that I was interviewing for the role of Store Manager. The current Store Manager was someone that I trusted and found to possess a high-level of integrity. During the interview the Assistant Manager couldn’t speak to any of their competencies or strategies regarding how they will continue the forward-momentum of the business or why they were the best candidate to fill the role. This person’s only strategy was to speak about the current store manager’s short-comings. I attempted to steer the dialog in a different direction with each question, to no avail. Following their bean-spilling, I concluded the interview, spoke with the District Manager and then we spoke with the Assistant Store Manager letting that person know that we would be pursuing other candidates for the role and the “why” behind the decision.

My second over-the-top example is more recent. I worked with an organization that is – frankly – very broken in many ways. Promotions were primarily handed out based on time in position, not skill or results based. It was definitely a culture where politicking mediocrity ascended by having and sharing “dirt” on others. As a result, there were some severely under-developed and ill-equipped “managers” in place. For example, there was a very politically savvy manager in a specific market who was, initially, a source of information when I needed to get a pulse on what was happening in the field with certain initiatives. The one gigantic challenge was that this manager was very much committed to gossiping as there was an almost compulsive need to be in the middle of all activity. I coached this manager on this issue a few times when we’d speak but it was very much ingrained in the culture of this market, unfortunately. In any event, this manager had been with the organization for almost a decade and had lots of personal relationships with managers at other locations. As this person made it a point of telling me who worked for them at some point and that they’d been promoted, the manager felt a sense of superiority. When this person’s position was, in any way, threatened they would share everyone’s secrets.

When uber-ambition couples with a person who has insecurities, watch out! This is a ferociously terrifying beast. An aggressive, sneaky, vicious colleague who preys on “weak” coworkers. This is when ambition turns toxic and dark. If this person was merely ambitious and confident about what they were doing, they would not feel the need to involve anyone else in their dialogs. Instead, they believe that their path to greatness includes taking the “competition” down a notch or two, which – from their perspective – causes them to look better [artificially, of course].

7 Ways To Outsmart The Office Shark

  • Learn The Art Of Delivering The “Non-Answer”: After about the first two weeks of interacting with the person in my second example above I learned not to give up specific information. If they asked about my personal life I would re-direct the conversation to a business question. If they asked what I was working on or where I may be traveling to next,  I would ask them a question that would re-focus the dialog to them and to what they could share with me. I was vague and somewhat superficial as I wanted to ensure that I was just getting the needed information without leaving any detail that could potentially place me in a professionally compromising position. I also – quickly – found others who were less challenging and more productive to deal with.
  • Trust Your Intuition: When something feels “off” as you interact with certain people, trust what your intuition is telling you. Be on guard until you can determine exactly who you are interacting with. It is better to err on the side of caution if you believe there to be a potential issue as you engage in establishing new professional relationships.
  • Be Extremely Shrewd Around The Shark: Anything that you may rely on this person for – follow up, ask lots of probing questions, dig deeper when you feel you need to. If you are relying on them for something very specific, get it in writing.
  • Document & Communicate Clearly: As stated above, documentation and clear communication are the most effective tools in your arsenal to shut down the back-stabber. Through documented and transparent communication you can make it more difficult for the “shark” to stick it to you. Keep your leaders updated on your progress at various milestones so they know your involvement and passion behind the project/objective.
  • Do Your Job Extremely Well: Never play into the office politics. Make sure you are producing work that is high-quality, on-time or early, and complete. When you perform at an exceptional level and build authentically solid workplace partnerships and relationships, you have taken ammunition out of the hands of the workplace snake/shark.
  • Don’t Let It Go – Be Ready To Address It: This is a difficult step in the process but one that cannot be missed. Part of the reason why this divisive goblin resorts to backstabbing as their personal and professional growth strategy is because it can [and probably has] work(ed), to some degree. Most people are too passive or nervous to get into a potential confrontation with others, especially in the workplace. The sharks/snakes count on this. Hope is not a strategy. If you show them that you will not allow bad behavior directed at you, they will likely focus their attention on other’s who are more docile.
  • Be Prepared To Escalate The Issue To Your Superior(s): If your attempts to address and remedy the situation fail, you may need to partner with your direct supervisor(s) and/or Human Resources for support. At this point in the relationship, you’ve documented what has transpired; supporting your position should be easy enough prove. Additionally, before it gets to this point, you may also want to give your superior(s) a “heads up” that this is taking place and what you are doing to address the situation [just to bring visibility to it should you need to elevate it]. Keep in mind that workplace sharks will seek to possess favor from “the boss” by turning on others and pointing out failures. For environments that are toxic – unfortunately, this behavior is okay which makes this step more difficult. Part of your defensive posture should be to assume that this is taking place in your workplace culture – to a certain degree. Fortunately, some/most of today’s leaders are bright and savvy enough to judge matters objectively without the help of the the slippery snake.

Note To The Workplace Sharks & Snakes

Everyone has the right to pursue happiness and fulfillment, personally and professionally, but when that desire drives people to hurt others in the process – something is clearly wrong. If this is your decided path, please know, in the end you will have nothing left but infamy and possibly a few hollow victories under your belt. The idea that time heals all wounds is a sugarcoated lie…some experiences are supposed to scar and lessons should be learned.

Earned victories are absolutely more fulfilling and lasting. Additionally, when you earn your success, your reputation comes away in tact as honest, authentic, genuine, hardworking, focused on the things you control.


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail and 18 year retailer. I am a passionate and creative leader and coach committed to inspiring thought, action, truth-telling, solution-seeking, and dialog about how to maximize talent through identifying and creating a process around critical success factors, workplace culture, signature leadership practices, productivity, profitability, alignment of employees and company vision & values, and workplace happiness inside all retail organizations. I help create healthy, vibrant, high-performing, and highly-productive organizations that are talent magnets and focused on delivering the highest level of customer experience that will differentiate them from competition and result in long-term growth and sustainability.

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