Expert Advice

Face-Off With a Ruthlessly Ambitious Colleague?

| Updated November 29, 2017

Employee competition — it happens at nonprofits too

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I have an executive colleague who's determined to be the shining star at our charity. She clearly strives to be closest "to the throne" and gets upset when our CEO praises my (or anyone else's) work. She's the sort of person who takes credit for everything good coming out of our team and plays the blame game whenever we have a problem. She is fawning and ingratiating with the CEO, who, frankly, eats it up.

Although this colleague can be nasty to everyone, she seems to pick me out for her special poison. She pointedly doesn't speak to me in meetings or at social events and seems to think any ideas I have are worthless (as she lets everyone know). She also gossips behind my back.

My general policy with this woman has been to ignore her, but it's getting harder to turn the other cheek. I try to do a great job for my nonprofit and I feel discouraged. FYI: I have a bit of "dirt" on this colleague myself, if she wants to keep at me. What do you think?

Gary says …

Are you a wimp, or do you just play one in the workplace?

There's at least one person of the type you describe in every workplace. Unfortunately, people like this are generally allowed to run rampant and get by with this type of behavior because the team doesn't rein them in. The key here, as you stated, is that she picks you out personally for her venomous attacks. The only way this stops is for you to confront her directly about this behavior. This needs to be done off-site in a one-on-one meeting. Tell her exactly what you've experienced and tell her emphatically to stop it. Forget the "dirt." Just hit her with the cold hard truth. Make it clear you're not going to be on the other end of the unwarranted attacks any longer.

Kathryn says ...

I'm with Gary. Why, oh why, does every business — for-profit or nonprofit — have one of this sort? Did she wander into the wrong door? Does she think the longest knife gets the corner office?

This behavior has no place in a nonprofit, where successful mission delivery is paramount and the bottom line is that everyone works together to achieve social change. What to do when you become the specified hit for a career assassin is another issue. It would be great if Wall Street were the exclusive province of the "take no prisoners" climber, but it seems like you're dealing with one in your own nonprofit.

At the risk of sounding too soft, I think the best first approach you can take is to ignore this woman and, when necessary, interact in a polite, calm and soothing manner — much like you would a wild animal that crossed your path in the forest. The CEO, who seemingly doesn't get this woman's not-so-hidden agenda, will be of no help to you here. Treat your colleague as all bullies should be treated: sidestep her petty insults and carry on.

That said, be ready to pick your fights when you must and assemble your allies when you're ready. Your co-workers know who your colleague really is and what she's trying to do to you (and everyone else). Nasty behavior doesn't go unnoticed. Be strong and self-assured and this likely thin-skinned oppressor will choose another victim. (Sad, but true.) And never fear — with her voracious ambition to be on top, your colleague will likely soon be moving on.

Now, your take!

Guy says ... Excellent perspective, Kathryn. One reason I had to leave my last business was because I couldn't handle the daily stress of working with someone like this. I learned there's a fine line (and an important distinction) between confident ambition and common traits of narcissistic personality disorder.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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