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The Real Backbiters of Capitol Hill

Blame Congress. That’s what opinion polls seem to suggest that the general public does. But what if the problem isn’t Congress, but a set of ruthless co-workers? Hill Navigator discusses why competitive offices may not be confined to the Capitol.

Q. My office suffers from a bit of unhealthy competitiveness. What do you make of competition that puts individual performance over the goals of the member of Congress that we work for? This is clearly the case when co-workers undercut and subvert the work of others in order to appear more intelligent or capable. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a phenomenon anywhere other than Capitol Hill. Does such a dog-eat-dog mentality exist in the private sector? What is to be made of competition that puts individual performance over the goals of the employer?

Capitol Hill is brimming with high-achieving, goal-oriented masters of big ideas and small talk. You can’t get elected to Congress without it. You might land some incredible co-workers who will push you to do your best. But sometimes that same intense drive to be recognized for success can backfire, particularly when it comes at the expense of a co-worker.

What to do if you’ve landed in such an office? First, take a step back and examine where the subversion is coming from. Is this just one or two co-workers, or is the member of Congress leading the charge? If it’s coming from an isolated set of individuals, see what you can do to protect yourself from their antics. Document your work, cc higher-ups on emails to show your paper trail, and avoid biting back, as this can fuel their one-upmanship.

If this persists, bring it up to a supervisor in a broad context. Say you feel unsettled by the office dynamic without naming specifics. A good boss will know what you mean. And if you can’t have that conversation, find a way to focus on the work you feel most empowered doing. The subversive co-workers may be looking for people to attack, and they are less likely to go after aspects of your portfolio where you demonstrate a clear expertise and capability.

But what if it’s the boss? For better or for worse, the boss sets the office tone; rarely can you entice a boss to change leadership styles. This is when you can decide if this is a place you want to work. But keep in mind that leaving Capitol Hill will not be the cure-all for difficult co-workers. They exist in every arena out there. Good luck.

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