It's probably happened to you more times than you'd care to remember. You're at the top of your game in the office. Your tasks are done, your projects successful. As a result, your quotas and goals have been reached and decimated.

But then suddenly, you discover nasty rumors about you brown-nosing a supervisor or supposedly working your way up the ladder using unsavory tactics. Somehow coworkers take any opportunity to undermine your achievements by knocking you down a peg with their comments or actions.

And you thought your colleagues were the best mates ever.

Australians have an informal phrase to describe this phenomenon —tall poppy syndrome — the disparagement of someone who's risen to a level that's higher than the other poppies in the same field. In other countries, you're more likely to hear expressions such as the familiar, "Stop making the rest of us look bad."

Social undermining often manifests itself as people telling you to stop making others look bad.

Whatever form it takes though, the results are the same: High-performing individuals sometimes have to endure negative backlash — even social undermining — from their peers because of their work ethic.

The psychology of social undermining

There are many negative social consequences to excellent performance in the workplace.

A study in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour defines social undermining as behavior intended to hinder a worker's success, reputation, and positive relationships over time.

This behavior might look like:

  • Someone badmouthing your work or reputation
  • Someone competing with you in order to gain status or prominence over you
  • Someone purposely withholding information you need to do work
  • Someone intentionally giving you false information about a task you're doing so you miss a deadline

That same study considers social undermining a form of workplace aggression and identifies three main distinguishing factors, namely:

  1. This behavior is intentional. It's done on purpose and with a negative goal in mind.
  2. This behavior seeks to interfere with work relationships by influencing how coworkers or supervisors view the victim.
  3. This behavior assumes that the above negative outcomes will occur.

An article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology studying 1,087 recently unemployed respondents shows that those who experienced social undermining in the workplace reported having poorer mental health that manifested itself in feelings of irritation, anxiety, depression, and more. It impacts the worker and their output in a significant manner.

In short, it's an attack meant to slow you down and bring you back down to the attacker's level. And its effects are detrimental to a person's psychological well-being and relationships at work.

How to deal with undermining behavior

So how does a top performer deal with being the target of resentment in the workplace? Or, what advice can we give to "tall poppies" and overachievers alike?

Talk to your colleagues

Once this undermining starts impeding your output, you should take concrete steps to alter the situation.

First off, confront the people talking about you. If you know who they are, have a simple talk with each person one-on-one, and explain that you want the behavior to stop. This is often the most effective way to solve the problem.

Report it

But if your plea falls on deaf ears, take it up the chain of command. Talk to your manager, your department head, Human Resources, and so on. File a formal complaint with HR stating just the facts. Make it clear you will not accept this behavior.

Pack your bags

The simplest option is to weigh your pros and cons and figure out whether it's worth the mental aggravation to come in every day and work in a pit of vipers.

If your "cons" column weighs heavier, then begin a new job search and find a friendlier workplace.

TIP: Read the reviews of your next company on websites such as Glassdoor. Those anonymous reviews typically spill all the beans. Just remember: no company is perfect.

Or... ride it out

When confronted with a reader's dilemma that sounds exactly like the opening paragraph of this blog post, HR leader and Forbes columnist Liz Ryan shares this nugget:

They say that the emotion most likely to follow intense dislike (even loathing) is boredom.

Ryan's point is: If you don't let your sniping colleagues have the satisfaction of seeing you hurt and panicking, they'll eventually move on to another target.

This is assuming, of course, you choose to stick it out in a toxic work environment where you have to deal with childish treatment from supposedly adult coworkers.

And if you're unsure whether your workplace culture is toxic or safe, then rate your current office with the checklist in this piece: 10 Signs Your Workplace is Toxic.

Control what you can: Yourself

Finally, the age-old adage is true: you can only control your own reaction to a situation. You can't control what other people say about you or your work.

If they're catty or passive-aggressive, you can choose to ignore them and refuse to take the bait. If they're hostile, you can choose to walk away.

Social undermining happening to you? You can only control your own reaction.

Meanwhile, you continue to do the work you were hired for to the best of your ability. Because doing it any other way (i.e. slacking off and choosing to produce mediocre work) is an insult both to your capabilities as a performer and to your employer's trust in you.

Protect your mental health

If you find the stress of dealing with toxic colleagues is bleeding into your personal life, it's time to reach out. Talk to a friend or trusted family member. Research the resources your company offers to support mental health. Remind yourself of the skills and expertise you bring to your organization and why you were hired in the first place. 

You can only do so much

Excellence is divisive in an organization where mediocrity rules. Realize that you can only do so much to fit in or to try and change the culture before you yourself are tainted. It's better to find a company where your skills and your drive can be appreciated. And where, instead of worrying about colleagues stabbing you in the back, you work with people who have your back.