What are we talking about? To undermine is "to damage or weaken (someone or something) gradually and insidiously" Insidious means "proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects." In a world where most businesspeople understand that it's wrong to discriminate against women, that discrimination hasn't gone away--it's just gone underground. Undermining is a coded, seemingly more clever way to unsettle strong women in the workplace. After all, if a man or a woman threatened by your success or potential can't overtly block your progress, they can at least try to get you to be quiet, to doubt yourself or to pay attention to the criticism, instead of your goals. If you're impervious to that criticism, they can work at making it seem as if many others doubt you, damaging your reputation, perhaps.
Don't despair. You can cultivate your own set of talking points and tactics for handling this kind of situation in the moment. Here's what has worked well in my experience:
- Learn how to set boundaries: I'm a big fan of the tactics in Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. It's helpful to keep in mind that many times, the critic or underminer is just automatically reacting. When attention is paid to you, he feels bad, so he attempts to make you feel bad and takes back the spotlight and control of the conversation. Unfortunately, reasoning or arguing back aren't your best options with such a person.
- Respond, but don't react: Undermining techniques hope for a reaction from you--either overtly and in public, or at a minimum, to cast doubts in your mind about your abilities. Not reacting means keeping emotion in check and thinking before you speak. Responding lets you address any immediate issue of substance. You may find it easiest to respond with a question to smoke out what lies beneath your underminer's comments and make them public for all to see.
- Get playful with it: You'll do best with an underminer if you have at the ready some playful, funny, but straightforward words to set boundaries--because the underminer is all about crossing your boundaries in subtle but harmful ways. If he's a repeat offender, I love stealing Ronald Reagan's sly debate line, "There you go again," while shaking your head from side to side with a grin on your face. A little humor lets you look smart, non-anxious and in charge of your boundaries.
- Ignore it: Not every attack needs a response, and you may find your underminer loses interest when you don't produce that satisfying reaction for which he's waiting. Don't get defensive, furious or self-doubting. Smile knowingly and move on.
- Enlist teammates: Here's a good reason to bring another woman to a meeting: You can agree in advance to play good-cop-bad-cop, or to help each other out of a jam.
....a physician at one of my workshops had a colleague who was a bit of a bully — opinionated and critical. This colleague would tell her emphatically how he saw things and what she ought to do. She would just listen — but fume afterward, thinking over and over about what she wished she had said. It was a classic case.
Then, one day, she applied what she had learned about mindfulness and changing patterns. Her colleague was his usual blustery, domineering self. But after he was done, she paused, collected her thoughts and told him calmly: “I don’t agree with you. People can have their own opinions. I respect the way you do things but prefer to do things differently.” Taken aback, he walked off without a word. She told me he was never the same bully with her again.