HBR Case Study - Nov 2008

When Your Colleague Is a Saboteur (HBR Case Study and Commentary) (from the November 2008 issue of HBR) is a case-study that I found quite engrossing. You can read the entire case, at least at the time of writing this post, at the HBR site above. I have reproduced some snippets from the case below:
“Bit of a blur, actually. I spent forever working up some new slides. I looked high and low for that file you said Patrick kept on Millhouse—and ultimately couldn’t find it. So I just cobbled something together.”
“Oh, that’s harsh,” Nicole replied empathetically, pulling open a desk drawer. She produced a box of Swiss chocolates and offered him one, which he accepted. “I know that file is somewhere,” Nicole added. “Patrick never seemed to save anything in its proper place. The file’s probably on the hard drive of a junked laptop. Don’t you just love living with the consequences of someone else’s nasty habits?” She took a sip of tea, winked at Mark, and peeked at her computer monitor.
“Listen, Nicole, I know you must be inundated, but would you mind looking over the slide deck as soon as you can? I sent it to you last night. I want to make sure it looks all right from your standpoint before we present it.”

Mark knew he should interject, but his mind was in a whirl. This was exactly the kind of information that was supposed to be in the file he had been looking for. Why did Nicole have it, and why hadn’t she shared it with him?

Nicole looked up quickly from her desk. Her cheeks reddened. “There’s no way you’re going to meet with Ian if I’m not there!” She stood up confidently. “I’ve been working in this sector, and on Millhouse, for a long time. If you think you’re going to take that away from me, you’ve got another think coming!”

Mark decided to be direct. “Ah, I see. So it’s about grabbing most of the credit, is it?”

“Most of the credit? Ha!” She laughed as if mocking a schoolyard playmate. “I’m trying to grab all of the credit!”

Mark was visibly stunned. “Relax, Mark, you look stressed,” she said breezily as she strode past. Tilting her head at him, she opened the door and walked out.


Irrespective of the industry, and almost irrespective of geography, it is likely that we have encountered variations of this case study in our professional lives. The threat of being upstaged, back-stabbed, or being wrongfully deprived of credit is something that all of us deal with at some or the other point in our careers. This threat can be real at times, or imagined and exaggerated at others.
The three commentaries attached at the end of this case try to analyze and provide some suggestions. One thing that seems to come out is that the effective and lasting solution to this problem is to go back wit a renewed focus on execution and delivering on your job. Complaining to the boss is one of the easiest yet least desirable solutions, especially when the boss is likely to view you as a complaining kindergarten kid running off to the teacher, tears in eyes, asking for the saboteur to be spanked and proscribed from any future bullying. This is especially so if you do not have much capital built with your boss.
What may really be happening here? Nicole may actually be a very good and effective though slightly aggressive executive who has just happened to brush Mark off the wrong way, and Mark fails to respond in a mature way. Of, Nicole may in fact be a person who is used to getting her way, the end justifying the results, and this particular episode is only one representative example of that philosophy. A third explanation, could well be that Nicole's behavior is actually encouraged, implicitly so, by the organizational culture, where people are expected to behave so. In any case, one solution may well be to, so to say, let your work do the talking.

This also reminded me of a very good book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, which I strongly recommend.