Ask the Leadership Coach: How do I handle being sabotaged by a colleague?

Office politics can make even a great job go sour. Leadership coach John M. McKee advises a company VP who feels his position is being sabotaged by a colleague.

 One of the nasty things about political maneuvering in the workplace is that you may not realize you're the victim of someone else's plot until it's too late. Here's one story that came to my attention:


I can use your advice.  While moving up the ranks from being 1 of many engineers to vice president of the company's entire IT group, I've enjoyed a solid and satisfying career with the same employer for 12 years.  Until now, I've never thought much at all about the "politics" that take place elsewhere.  Until now.

About 8 months ago, a new VP was hired to oversee a new venture at my company.  He's an older guy; I'm 39 and he's probably in his mid-50s.  From the first day he arrived I've gone out of my way to let him know that I'd be happy to help him with anything that could help him succeed.  Now, it seems, I was naive.

Over the past couple of months he's made statements during our leadership team meetings that make me and my team look ineffective.  In a company project review last week, he seemed to make a point of commenting about every issue or problem my department was encountering with our deliverables.  After drawing attention to a few of them - in front of managers and department heads from several departments - he told our boss that he'd be happy to help me out by taking on the additional responsibility of overseeing all company-wide projects.  He said that he has a lot more experience with this type of complexity than anyone else (implication being me), that he's got extra time, and that it just made sense to lend his hand to ensure we don't miss deadlines.

I was set up and made to look like I can't do my job.  I realize now that he's had this plan all along and I didn't see his office politics until now.  I think my boss is seriously considering the idea of boosting our new VP's status and the idea infuriates me.   This has me very upset.  It's all I can think about even when I'm at home with my family.

Am I screwed?  If it comes down to it, I will not report to this unethical and self serving jerk.  Is it time to start looking for a new job?

Gerald in Miami

The Leadership Coach response

Well, it does sound like you've been out-maneuvered by the new guy.  But you may not have to start looking for a new job just yet, Gerald.  Before I give you my suggestions about your "next steps"; let's take a minute to review what happened in your situation.

New, older guy arrives. He's brought in at the same level as you and tasked with the success of a new venture. It's clear that this new venture is a high priority because of his VP level and direct reporting to the big boss.  You, the younger, "home-grown" talent with 12 years at the company, and a collegial guy, offered to help show him how to get things done.  Eight months later, the new guy is pointing out all your problems and making a power play to get more responsibility. Now the boss seems to be considering the idea.

Let's spend a minute looking at this new guy: He's in his 50s, coming into a new firm, with a high-profile role. For him, he may view this opportunity as his last, best chance to make a big mark in his career.  And at his age, he's seen and probably played a lot of politics over the years. Many execs don't get his kind of chance to make a big contribution with a new employer this late in their careers.  He could be very motivated to show his expertise, and may want to be regarded as a go-to guy who can do a lot more than the other veeps.  He's got a lot of skin in this game.

Whether or not anyone actually considers that he could potentially become your new boss, you need to make it very clear, for all concerned, that you know what needs to be done and will do what it takes to succeed.

You could also help your boss to recognize that the new guy has enough on his own plate already. We're talking about hard-nosed tactics and actions. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Measure twice — cut once. If your team's doing everything right, there's less reason for the boss to make any change. That means that your key team members need to be operating at peak performance. But if you've got mistakes happening, take action. Immediately, have a serious conversation with anyone who's dropping the ball. Help these individuals see the importance of doing their job, at all times, in a first class way.  And make it clear that you cannot allow any more hiccups. 2.  Check the lay of the land. Without being too obvious, find out how others in the company view this guy. Discreetly check the perceptions of peers, support area heads in HR or Finance, and your boss. Is he someone who can be trusted or do others view him with suspicion? You want to verify your feelings. 3.  Consider the Japanese management style. As far back as the 1600s, managers and warriors understood that they had similarities in their day to day activity. Miyamoto Musashi, perhaps the most famous Samurai, wrote A Book of Five Rings about strategic thinking and tactics for warriors; but it's been studied by leaders of all types ever since. Anyone seeking strategy guidance can consider his advice for almost any situation. I'll caution you - it's tough stuff; but office politics can be too - with lives and careers irreparably damaged. This read may provide some ideas for you. 4. Deal with issues head-on. Get together with this guy over a cup of coffee or a drink. Do it someplace that is not his office to eliminate any potential "home turf advantage."  Gain an understanding of his motives and his goals. Act accordingly.

Hopefully it's not too late to deal with this issue and put it to rest.  This may also be a good time to polish up your resume and make sure you're in good shape just in case this goes the wrong way. Even if things improve, I'd recommend that you - and all senior types - go out on at least one job interview each year.  It will help you to find out what's out there and how things compare. This little action will keep you sharper and reduce any tendency toward complacency.


Leadership Coach

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John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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