There probably will be many times you’ll suspect that a co-worker is subtly undermining your work or career to further their own ambitions.
On “The Mole,” it’s the reality. In the newly refreshed Netflix reality series, competitors have two objectives: increase the grand prize money by winning a series of challenges, and figure out who among them is actually a “mole” hired by the producers to quietly sabotage their efforts and cause havoc.
What’s more fun than watching contestants pull off “Ocean’s 11”-like bank heists and sunken treasure hunts for cash is watching them endure the psychological challenge of figuring out who is merely bad at the games and who is actually trying to cost them money. Each non-mole player wants the team to win the challenges, so the cash pool is big if they win the game. But to win, they have to correctly guess who the mole is.
Each player believes their career and life experiences have prepared them to win challenges and suss out a saboteur.
Joi Schweitzer, a commercial airline pilot, banks on her navigational skills to help her win challenges, while Greg Shapiro, who works in marketing, is convinced the interrogational skills he’s honed managing focus groups will carry him through.
The pleasure of watching “The Mole” is knowing that everyone is told upfront that there is a saboteur among them, and that they are right to be sneaky and suspicious. But in real life, at work, we don’t have that certainty, and it can make us especially paranoid when it comes to office politics.
“If someone is paranoid, they might interpret a simple benign interaction as an insult,” said Trevor Foulk, an organizational management professor at the University of Maryland. “For example, if someone walks by in the hall and doesn’t say ‘hi,’ under normal circumstances you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re just busy today.’ But when paranoid, you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re mad at me, why didn’t they say ‘hi?’ Oh, I hope they’re not talking about me behind my back.’”
At some point, you will probably experience paranoia at work resulting from a colleague’s seemingly harmful or selfish behavior. That’s why we asked paranoia experts and the TV contestant who was revealed as the mole to weigh in on how to figure out when your paranoia is totally justified, and what to do if you’re stuck with a mole-ish co-worker.
(Obviously, there’s a major spoiler about “The Mole” below.)
How to suss out a workplace saboteur, according to ‘The Mole’ and paranoia experts.
If you finished the new season of “The Mole,” then you know Kesi Neblett turned out to be the saboteur all along. Neblett, a former computer analyst, was an excellent mole who flew under the radar most of the season, subtly wrecking challenges with a friendly smile.
“If she’s the mole, then she’s just so blatant and so obvious,” one player tells the camera about halfway through the season. “But because of that, I just don’t think she’s the mole.”
Neblett told HuffPost that she studied psychology, watched the original Belgian series that “The Mole” is adapted from, and read John le Carré spy books to get into the headspace of a saboteur. She’s seen the techniques she learned demonstrated at work, too, especially when it comes to people who lack strong skillsets but still manage to convince others they’re amazing workers.
“People honestly believe what you say more so than what you do,” Neblett said. “All along the way, I’m doing things that don’t make sense, but also I’m having the ability to explain myself, to give this narrative to each player about why this happened, and to build these connections with them.”
On “The Mole,” Neblett’s sabotage ranged from her purposeful inability to snag a bag of cash from a moving train to bold, devious moves like choosing immunity she didn’t need in order to make the rest of the group spend the night on a smelly cold warehouse floor, losing $20,000 from the prize pot as a result.
The closest you may come to the actual game scenarios on “The Mole” is a bad night at an escape room during a corporate team-building retreat. But feeling like you’re dealing with mole-ish behavior in the office or questioning a colleague’s true intentions is a universal experience.
Foulk said employees from all backgrounds can experience paranoia, from managers who worry that their employees are only being nice to them to secure a promotion to lower-level employees fearing career-ending threats. As any person who has worked with a toxic colleague knows, being undermined by a co-worker before a promotion is awarded or having a boss pass your ideas as their own can wreak havoc on your psyche.
To suss out this type of potentially mole-ish colleague, Neblett said it helps to get to know them better.
“Do they care about excellence? Do they care about fame? Do they care about notoriety? What is it that they value?” she said. “If you understand their past and their history, take a moment to get to know them and figure out the essence of them, then you’ll understand the decisions that they will and will not make. And then you’ll understand if their words are matching with their actions.”
To avoid being beaten by this person, don’t go all-in on them being a bad operator and act accordingly. On “The Mole,” the most successful players often went with the majority feeling or hedged with votes on several people during elimination quizzes on who they thought was the mole in order to survive to the next round.
Neblett thinks this strategy can apply to workplaces, too. If you encounter a mole-ish person at work, she said, you should diversify your networks so that you’re not relying on that one person to succeed.
“Let’s say they turn out to not be the co-worker you expected them to be, or lived up to be, now you have another part of your network that can save you,” she said.
Research backs up her idea that testing assumptions and forging strong networks is how you can lessen your paranoia at work. And generally, the more powerless you feel in your organization, the more paranoid you are likely to be, Foulk and his colleagues say in a study they published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
“As the old saying goes, ‘It isn’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you.’ Paranoia is often — but not always — justified,” study co-author Michael Schaerer told HuffPost. “A good way to evaluate whether a threat is real, and whether you should worry about a co-worker, is to explain the signals you are perceiving to a good friend or close colleague and see if they come to the same conclusion and if they perhaps have additional pieces of information that would solidify or challenge your conclusion to be paranoid.”
Schaerer gave the example of a colleague not responding to your email. If you feel like they’re doing it on purpose, put that assumption to the test and stop by their cubicle and say hello, or message them about something else, and see how they respond. “Oftentimes, it turns out there is a good explanation,” he said.
In their research, Foulk and Schaerer found that supportive organizational environments can lessen powerless employees’ paranoia.
“Since paranoia is a state of vigilance to potential threats, when we feel supported we are a little less worried about those threats,” Foulk said. “If you’re worried that people are talking behind your back, conspiring against you, etc., but you also feel that if it came to it, your manager would support you, the threat that those people represent –– again, whether real or not –– doesn’t seem as bad, since you know you’ll be able to protect yourself even if the threat became real.”
And if you’re stuck working with a mole-ish colleague, figure out what is valuable to them and try to align that with what is valuable to you, Neblett said. In other words, knowledge is power and you can use it to get ahead.
“Technically, you are working with a mole-ish type of co-worker, but it could also work in your favor if it’s a mutually beneficial situation,” Neblett said.