Beware the workplace chameleon

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

The workplace variety is not as cute (photo: Wikipedia)

Being able to adapt, change, and sometimes go with the flow can be a good trait to possess. After all, change is the only constant, right? Even Charles Darwin would tell us that species either adapt to the demands of their environments or disappear.

And so it goes at work, too. If we want to be good at our jobs, we must be able to deal with change. That includes dealing with a new boss or supervisor.

But what about that species of co-worker who is so able to turn her colors that she cannot be trusted? You know, the one who is so committed to surviving or getting ahead that she becomes a workplace chameleon, able to change hues in an instant.

I searched the term and didn’t find much out there. I did pull a 2001 CNN piece by Amy Erickson that referred to “(t)hose slippery workplace chameleons who seem to change and adapt their behavior for each boss, manager or situation.” The article cited to a study claiming that workplace chameleons don’t get ahead as often as we might think.

Regardless of whether they get ahead or simply stay around, workplace chameleons can do a lot of damage to others. Above all, they are in it solely for themselves. Many a workplace chameleon can morph into someone truly dangerous. Taking orders from above or cues from co-workers, this creature may engage in destructive and hurtful behaviors.

When acting at the behest of a toxic or bullying boss, the chameleon may claim that he is only “following orders.” However, he also may internalize some of that malicious energy and act accordingly. If new management arrives with (hopefully) a better set of ethics and morals, the chameleon may revert back to being a decent human being, especially if there’s something in it for him.

It’s not easy to spot a workplace chameleon, but once you see him change colors in ways that hurt others, you won’t forget him. Hopefully you will have kept a sufficient distance so as not to have been directly impacted by that transformation.

3 responses

  1. Yes. I have heard many targets say that the co-worker who was recruited or offered themselves up as a spy or Lt. to the bully boss “was my friend”. Given that so much of our time is spent at work, the “office” also becomes the pool for “friends”. Being betrayed by a friend at work is extremely injurious. Once this happens, the target usually begins to isolate themselves in their “cubicles” and that is exactly where the bully wants them, isolated and constantly in their “target”.

  2. Or, in a kiss up/kick down environment the others follow the leader leading to further isolation of the target. Workplace friendships are difficult. I have never been the same person emotionally after experiencing workplace bullying by a very bad supervisor. My confidence has eroded so much that I am exhausted by life in general. I start each work day with the “Do Your Best” mantra. Even the smallest error on my part will set me into a panic of anxiety which I have been able to manage but the mental and physical toll it takes is exhausting. I live in fear of having a meltdown again. I suspect it is truly PTS. Most days I come home and collapse from fatigue after managing a few chores. Not much joy left to life now and I truly know that a bad, bullying boss years ago was the catalyst that triggered this.

  3. I read this article after just throwing out my last lecturing notes. I did not see that my name was missing from the handouts cover page that session as I handed them out. The new guy who had just been sitting in “just to learn and get his certificates” had his name on it though. I even helped the other experienced lecturer as he stumbled with basic forms for students to complete that morning.

    At morning tea break I was told by a senior manager and alleged friend of my replacement that that I did not match the new standards. Twenty two years of work for this organisation ended then. The Chamelions are still there. Yet each year the new lecturers are replaced.

    This morning I walked past my wife on the way to the recycling bin and said “this was all once so important to me,” It has no relevance or importance any more. I have no bad feelings about being out of this now.

    Chamelions in my view are incompetents who say what ever is required to the boss to keep their jobs.

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