How to avoid getting bitten by workplace ‘snakes’

Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you. Okay, maybe that’s a little too cynical. But would you agree that at some point in your career you are likely to have an “enemy”—someone who doesn’t agree with you, doesn’t like you and someone who might even like to inject a little poison into your career?


If you’re lucky, it will never happen to you but don’t be naïve, it happens to most of us. Snakes come in many shapes and sizes and some are more dangerous than others. I’ve had a few snake attacks during my own career. In one case, it was simply a matter of jealousy. It was easy to fix. I just outperformed him and the more he criticized the dumber he looked. In another case, a peer tried to destroy my credibility when I backed him into a corner for an ethical violation. The truth prevailed but his career was irreparably damaged.


Sometimes it’s worth extending a hand; other times you may need to use a stick. In any event, snakes are best ignored, since they usually reveal their true natures over time and do themselves in. But if you have a snake that has mounted an attack, you may need to be more proactive, or at least know how to dodge and weave.


How do you know it’s a snake?

You usually don’t see it coming. A detractor is usually smart enough to stay in the weeds, occasionally hissing at you when you get too close for comfort on one of his pet issues. You may learn about this person from someone else. They may drop you a clue in casual conversation, “Is Jake going to be at your presentation when you announce your plan? Watch your back buddy…you know how he likes to pick apart your ideas.” Whoa! That may be the first conscious realization that Jake is laying for you. Perhaps you were aware you didn’t always see eye to eye but when others start to notice, it’s probably a sign that your differences are bigger than you think.


How much poison does the snake have?

The amount of venom usually depends on how deep—and personal—your differences are. If your conflicts are issue related, there’s a good chance you’ll get hissed at but no real long-term damage will be done. If your credibility is solid, the snake will be very cautious about trying to discredit you. Just be careful that your facts are right and your logic is sound.


On the other hand, if your detractor sees you as having violated one of her deeply held principles (say, the person doesn’t think you are honest or trustworthy) you’d better watch your back. This person will be hard pressed to keep his/her feelings a secret, since the emotion behind them will push her beyond good judgment. If you start to hear comments coming back to you, you may have to have the “We don’t have to like each other to work together” conversation. This person’s mind will be hard to change.


How big is the snake?
If the snake is your boss, you’re a dead duck. If it’s your boss’s boss, you’re only safe as long as your boss continues to defend you. If your boss doesn’t have the influence and interest to help you, or leaves, you’re still a dead duck. In this case, the best strategy is to approach the person and ask for direct feedback and advice on significant projects and on your performance. Forget getting defensive—it will only provoke an attack.


Peer vipers can be dangerous, too. They criticize from the sidelines and can do damage if they are poisoning your reputation with others. These are people we tend to ignore and hope they leave us alone. Don’t be so sure. Your best bet is to solicit their input on projects that affect them and be proactive in communicating with them. Keep them in your sites on important issues, or they may sneak up on you to derail your work when you least expect it.


Employees can be snakes in the grass, as well. While they can be easier to corner and catch they can still do a tremendous amount of morale harm. Rather than accuse an employee of bad mouthing, you’re better off asking the person to be honest about what the problems are and try to work together to resolve them.


What will cause the snake to strike and how can you avoid getting bitten?

If you understand the person’s motivation, it helps to dodge a bite. For instance, if the person is jealous about your promotion, you may be in a position to compliment that person’s work in front of a senior manager. If the person has a different philosophy than yours, ask more questions about their perspective, so you can understand it. If they are critical of your work or ideas, solicit their input (even if you don’t use it, you need to hear it). Give their ideas your full attention and avoid the temptation to pin him to the floor with a forked stick. Draw out the poison, so you can understand it and deal with it.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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