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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Condescension in the Ranks: How to Handle Snide Remarks at Work

In all my years in the workplace, I can easily say that one of the most harmful behaviors for a team is a persistently condescending colleague.

While we’ve all been guilty (myself included) of a glib remark on occasion, a non-stop assault of condescending remarks toward either a specific individual or a team in general is obviously not good for morale.

But, if you’re anything like me, trying to have the right response for an onslaught of underhanded jabs can be emotionally draining, not to mention a major distraction from your work.

While there will probably always be bullies in the office who resort to verbal warfare to fight their battles, the good news is, you can build up an arsenal of your own to help combat the offensive. Here are three tactics I’ve found especially helpful when battling condescension in the ranks.

Deceptive Tactic: Smoke Screen

The easiest, and in my opinion the most natural, tactic is the smoke screen. If you’ve ever watched a war movie, or even the old Roadrunner vs. Wile E. Coyote cartoons, you’ve probably seen it in practice. In essence, you create a distraction that allows you to extricate yourself from the assault, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even lead your attacker into enemy territory (e.g., the boss’ office).

While you can resort to a wide variety of ammunition, so to speak, to accomplish this, I’ve found the easiest is (seemingly) genuine kindness. (Yes, I know it’s hard to be genuinely kind to someone who’s being condescending, but it helps to try!)

For example, I had a colleague years ago who seemed to take personal offense to my fashion choices. Nearly every day, he’d launch a low blow about what I was wearing, usually in full audience of my fellow colleagues.

One day, I’d had enough, but couldn’t muster up anything even remotely witty enough as a comeback. So instead, I quickly tried to think about things he always seemed to be talking about, and I distracted him by changing the topic. I smiled, paused, then asked how his daughter’s soccer match went that weekend. How’d she do? Did her team win?

While everyone else around me groaned, given this guy rarely stopped talking about his fabulous daughter (except to criticize my outfits, of course), it was clear why I’d done it, and before long, he was strutting away while I enjoyed high-fives from my colleagues.

Creating a diversion may sound complicated, but trust your instincts and stick to positive territory, and chances are you’ll easily distract your condescending colleague into a more pleasant topic of conversation.

Defensive Tactic: The Breakout

Sometimes, your attacker won’t be so easily swayed by a smoke screen, so you’ll need to resort to more defensive maneuvers—like the breakout.

While it may seem terribly unfortunate that you have to endure such treatment in the office, the good news is, you are in the office—where you and your condescending colleague both have jobs to do. That gives you an easy, legitimate “out” of the conversation if you’re under siege.

I worked with a woman years ago who constantly berated the guys in the mailroom. I never had the nerve to try to step in, but the guys in the mailroom had their defenses down to a science. Whenever she’d launch an assault, the guys would wait for her to take a breath, then look at the clock, grab a stack of mail or packages, and quickly excuse themselves to “make sure the CEO’s package would make it out on time.” In my four years working with them, it never failed, and I have to say, I’ve deployed it a time or two myself with equally effective result.

If you’re ever in a situation where you’re fending off snarky remarks, finding a way to get back to business is an elegantly simple way to squash the negativity—and show your dedication to your work in the process.

Offensive Tactic: Supportive Fire

While avoiding, or at least stemming off, an attack may seem like the path of least resistance, there does come a time when you should stand up and fight back.

Now, it may seem totally acceptable to fight fire with fire, but trust me, that never turns out well. Launching insults back at your attacker only gives him or her more ammo, not to mention makes you look bad in the process. Instead, use the power of your peers, and enlist your co-workers in the fight.

Many years ago, my office had a receptionist who had a wonderfully unique personality. While most of us enjoyed his antics, there was one executive who felt it his mission to throw jabs at him every time he walked past his desk—which was often. Our quirky receptionist did his best to turn the other cheek, but eventually, a group of us made it our mission to put a stop to it.

Whenever one of us saw him making his way toward the front desk, we buddied up and followed him. If he said anything, we immediately countered with our own, more positive comments or tried to change the subject. Each time someone different went, until just about the whole office was pitching in. It didn’t take long before the executive realized that he was outnumbered—and accepted defeat.

Whether they deploy one of the more subtle tactics above or pitch in by countering your attacker’s comments with positivity, the show of force by fellow office-mates is bound to help thwart the efforts of a condescending colleague.

There are about a zillion reasons why someone may feel the need to be condescending to a colleague, ranging from waking up on the wrong side of the bed to having some serious psychological issues. And while you probably don’t have the time or medical training to determine exactly why you’re the subject of an attack, with the right tactics and troops, you can fight back—and win.

Photo of colleagues talking courtesy of Shutterstock.