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Suzanne Edinger

Nottingham University Business School

Lecturer In Organisational Behaviour

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Competent individuals – at risk from social undermining?


Complexity is everywhere in the business world today. Businesses struggle with issues such as global interconnectedness, sustainability, hyper-competition and pervasive organisational change. And naturally, we all believe that the more skilled and competent our workforce, the more able we are to manage these issues successfully.

We never focus on competence

As HR professionals and managers, we tend to focus our time and efforts on employees with performance issues or problems. We don’t tend to worry much about our competent employees who appear to be doing well. We just assume that everything is fine. But this is not always the case.

It’s an unfortunate fact of workplace life that the same competent employees you most rely on can become the targets of abusive and negative behaviour from their co-workers. As prior studies have shown, when other employees see highly competent individuals as either smarter than themselves or better work performers, they can respond with negative, sometimes aggressive, behaviour. These negative behaviours are a way of compensating for feelings of envy, shame, and lowered self-esteem.


You may also be interested in: What is workplace incivility, why should we care, and what should we do?


Negative behaviour towards competence

In our own research here at Nottingham University Business School, we were interested in understanding more about the specific negative behaviours that might shown towards other highly competent team members.

The findings show that people who felt threatened engaged in `social undermining` toward their highly competent teammates. Undermining involves making derogatory comments, belittling a person’s ideas and withholding needed information.

These negative behaviours are easy to engage in. Whilst non-confrontational, these negative behaviours and comments (often made to another teammate or work colleague) can be quite serious. They can also undermine the competent employee’s reputation or relationships and damage them permanently – not to mention the performance of the team as a whole. 

Additionally, undermining someone else often sets the stage for further negative behaviour. Our study found that individuals who engage in undermining eventually create direct conflict with their highly competent team members. This conflict can take one of two forms. Initially, the conflict may focus primarily around team tasks. Examples of this type of conflict include disagreements over distribution of resources, procedures and policies, and judgments and interpretations of facts. 

Task conflict morphs into relationship conflict

This task conflict can quickly turn into more personal relationship conflict aimed at the highly competent team member. Disagreements about personal taste, values, and interpersonal style are examples of this second form of conflict. Relationship conflict in teams reduces both effectiveness and satisfaction of team members and can also create unhappiness. The presence of this type of conflict in teams can create major problems as the team spends their time and energy focusing on each other rather than the job at hand.

Friends, not colleagues

Luckily, not all highly competent team members will attract this kind of negative behaviour. We found that teammates who consider their fellow team members to be friends, and not just work colleagues, experienced fewer instances of both undermining and conflict than their less social counterparts. 

This might happen for two reasons.  First, social ties such as friendship are based on liking, trust, and emotional closeness. These ties tend to provide support between colleagues, which can help offset feelings of envy or threat. Additionally, people generally prefer to be friends with others who they see as similar to themselves. When we view someone as similar to ourselves, we are less likely to want to harm them.

So, what can organizations do to help prevent highly competent employees from becoming the targets of negative behaviour?  Here are three basic recommendations:

  • Communicate! Talk to your highly competent employees regularly. Let them know that you are interested in hearing about any problems they might be having. Highly competent workers may not feel comfortable bringing their issues or problems to you as they know you depend on them to perform. Keeping the lines of communication open is essential.
  • Intervene quickly. Manage any instances of negative behaviour or conflict in your work teams quickly. Many conflicts can be resolved satisfactorily if caught early. Don’t allow disagreements about task procedures to degenerate into personal animosity. Stepping in early also lets employees know that negative behaviour will not be tolerated in your workplace.
  • Encourage camaraderie. Provide employees with opportunities for social interaction outside of their day-to-day work. Once a month, hold a ‘celebrate our successes’ party or other activity which facilitates relationship-building. Encouraging work colleagues to form friendships will help keep employees from feeling threatened by their highly competent co-workers. 

One Response

  1. This is so right. This is
    This is so right. This is what is happening yo me right now. Thank you. It really helps .

Author Profile Picture
Suzanne Edinger

Lecturer In Organisational Behaviour

Read more from Suzanne Edinger

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