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Sabotage and Flattery: Two Tried-and-True Tricks to Getting Ahead at Work

A group of business people sitting around a table in a meeting.

​There are a few ways to succeed at your company.

You can work hard, show initiative, and be reliable and trustworthy.

Or you can make others look bad and cozy up to your boss.

Managers are more than twice as likely to sabotage others so they look better at work. Men, more than women, resort to sabotage or duplicitous self-promotion to get ahead. And pretending to like a boss or co-worker and stealing others' ideas are among the most popular of the insincere tactics people use for getting ahead.

That's according to a survey of 1,000 full-time employees conducted in July 2019 by Propeller Research on behalf of Reflektive, a people management platform based in Boston and San Francisco.

"The degree and frequency of deliberate sabotage at work is concerning but enlightening," said Rachel Ernst, Reflektive's vice president of employee success. "People, managers included, are human and therefore fallible."

Motivations for Sabotage

What are the top tactics for sabotaging others at work? According to the survey, pretending to like a co-worker to get information, meeting with a co-worker before a larger meeting to steal his or her ideas, and withholding important information from a colleague ahead of a meeting.

Withholding information amounts to sabotage because "anyone presenting without the same level of knowledge about the topic at hand would be handicapped, would be vulnerable, [would] look foolish and underinformed," said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting company in Norwalk, Conn.

Motivations for sabotage can be competition, ambition or revenge, said Lewis, who has his own experience with sabotage.

"I worked in a firm early in my career where the founder and CEO was retiring and decided to not select his successor, leaving a power vacuum for those in the C-suite to sort out," Lewis recalled. "Four candidates emerged, and each, in an effort to win the CEO role, undercut the others in some fashion."

Roberta Chinsky Matuson is president of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass., and author of Suddenly in Charge (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011). She has experience with sabotage, too.

"Most organizations I've been in or that I work with, they're highly politically charged," she said, "and to move up, you have to make certain plays, and not everybody plays nicely."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability]

Cozying Up to the Boss

Men are three to four times more likely than women to sabotage a colleague leading up to a performance review, the survey found.

"It is difficult to say why men are more likely than women to undermine colleagues for their own advantage," Ernst said.

Chinsky Matuson isn't sure she buys that men sabotage work colleagues more than women.

"I've seen a lot of women sabotage their co-workers," she said.

Asked what things they'd done in the weeks leading up to a performance review to affect the outcome, many survey respondents said they pretended to like their boss when they didn't, went to lunch or had drinks with their boss, suggested their mistakes were someone else's fault, or worked longer and harder than usual.

But lest anyone feel sorry for the duped manager, know that managers are more than twice as likely to sabotage a colleague in order to look better, the survey found.

The most common sabotage tactics among managers:

  • Talking about a colleague behind his or her back: 26 percent of managers surveyed admitted doing this, compared with 14 percent of employees.
  • Withholding information ahead of a meeting: 18 percent of the managers polled said they'd done this, compared with 7 percent of employees.
  • Holding a pre-meeting to steal a colleague's ideas: 16 percent of managers claimed to have used this tactic, compared with 5 percent of employees.

As an executive coach, Chinsky Matuson has had clients confess the things they've done to sabotage others.

"As you move up in the organization, there are fewer and fewer spots that you're competing for," she said. "So if you want to get one of those spots, you have to be a little more cutthroat."


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