7 Ways Employees Hold You Hostage | Overcoming Resistance

Ever feel like your hands are tied? That your best efforts are getting you nowhere?

If so, it’s time to look closely at what’s going on around you. 

Whether you’re a supervisor, a team leader, or a coworker, you need the cooperation of others to get your work done. 

There’s always information, a decision, a deliverable, or a resource needed to bring an assignment to closure. The employee who controls any one of them has the power to help or hinder us. 

To be held hostage by our employees and coworkers is to be manipulated by them for their own purposes. They withhold what we need to get what they want. 


For some employees, it’s a tactic to insulate themselves from criticism or position themselves for reward. 

It may be a sign that employees think their managers or coworkers are naïve, uninformed, unfair, or self-serving. 

It can also be a self-preservation tactic, an effort to protect their turf or to avoid changes that will expose their weaknesses. 

The 7 signs   

Hostage-taking at work doesn’t unfold like it does on the high seas. It’s gradual and often unnoticed until we’re stymied. 

To avoid being ensnared, we need to pay attention to what we see and what we hear, asking questions and intervening when there are signs. 

You know you’re being held hostage when: 

  1. You never get a straight answer—Information you request is never fully available, requires additional analysis, and can only be untangled by your employee.
  2. You’re told, “No one else can”—Your employee or coworker is the only person in your work group who has the knowledge, technical capability, experience, or access that is needed to complete the assignment. If s/he can’t do the work, you’re stuck.
  3. Your employee has the clout—An employee, not you, has the political pull with department heads, regulators, community/political leaders, and key customers. (This often happens to new managers who take over established departments of veteran employees.)
  4. You can be easily undercut— When your employee is perceived as knowing more about process mechanics, coworker issues, and customer concerns, s/he can marginalize your credibility.
  5. You’re out of the loop—When your employee gets sensitive and/or important information before you do, s/he is in a position to take action in a way that enhances his/her stature and diminishes yours.
  6. Employee loyalties shift—When employees have more confidence in the insights, direction, and knowledge of a coworker than you, that employee becomes a default leader, capable of supporting or undermining you.
  7. You can’t get things done—When your employees are pulling the strings, they are deciding what will get done and at what pace. Without you knowing it, you’re suddenly reporting to them. 

Now what? 

It’s an odd thing when an employee holds us hostage. We can try to ignore it, but I guarantee you, it won’t go away. I know because it’s happened to me.

The solution is to break free from the employee actions that are working against you by:

  • Holding employees accountable for delivering information/results as requested
  • Cross-training so there is always capability back-up
  • Building your own credibility with key players and influencers
  • Understanding the specifics about how work is done and the issues
  • Building strong internal relationships that will keep you informed
  • Working with your employees to build their trust and confidence
  • Developing a “get it done” culture and driving it 

You can only get caught in a hostage situation if you make yourself vulnerable. 

Employees don’t set out to undermine their supervisors or coworkers. Just like us, they want to succeed in what often looks like a tangled jungle to them. We all do what’s needed to keep our careers safe. 

Part of our job is to be a catalyst for the kind of shared success that comes from working together instead of being at odds. 

What have been your experiences? I’d love to hear from you. 

Photo: Duckie Hostage Crisis #001from jdsmith1021 via Flickr


14 thoughts on “7 Ways Employees Hold You Hostage | Overcoming Resistance

  1. Dawn, I swear your brain and my life are somehow cosmically tied together. You always seem to present posts that are so relevant to what’s happening in my world that day/week. It makes me giggle every time!

    I have worked with a hostage-taker. I never thought about it in those terms, but it is so accurate. This person actually hit every single behavior #1 through #7 and has brought productivity and morale to a screaming halt for me and others in the office at different times. It gets a bit more complicated because of some regional dynamics, but we’re still all working to figure out how to work with this person in a positive, productive manner. It feels like everyone else in the office is following your suggestions but it hasn’t quite worked out for us yet.

    We’re all dedicated to the cause though! Thanks so much for sharing your insights and re-affirming how to handle it appropriately, professionally, and assertively.

    • Megan, you’ve made my day with your comment! I couldn’t be happier to have this “cosmic” link to you. Sometimes these “coincidences” are truly amazing, so perhaps they aren’t coincidences at all!

      Like you I’ve worked with a hostage-taker but he was my employee. He had me with # 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7. It took me months to figure out what he was doing and why. He too was being held hostage my someone else and didn’t want to admit it, fearing he would look inept. I was the new manager, a position this man wanted, so it really got in his craw that I had the job and didn’t have knowledge in his area. (I was hired to lead business performance.) So he thought he had me in a strangle hold until I held him accountable for results he needed his hostage-taker to deliver. Oh what tangled webs we weave!

      This stuff gets pretty messy. But if we sense something is amiss and then start to untangle it, we get the real picture. It sure sounds like that’s exactly what you and your colleagues are doing. The key is not to rush it but be patient and systematic. After all, that’s what it takes to get any hostage freed–a commitment to the cause (you’ve got that!), and a well-thought-out, well executed plan. So glad I could lend a little perspective to keep your fires burning! Good luck, ~Dawn

  2. Interesting topic, Dawn. I think a major underlying issue is that some people in power are reluctant to exercise their authority. If you look at lawlessness in general, it’s hard to not find fault with the power players and their ambivalence with being seen as “the bad cop.”

    Speaking of which, and I don’t mean to undermine, nor disrespect law enforcement in any way, but I’ve seen many a juvenile get a “hand slap” from the police when they have clearly committed a crime. Too often, people in power are more concerned with being seen as nice and fair. And feeling sorry for someone, no matter the setting, is one of the worst things we can do to help them overcome their shortcomings.

    Getting back to your post (!), I think it comes down to the strength of the leader. If you’re not comfortable with firing, writing up, being disliked, etc., then maybe you should choose another position.

    The employee can only withhold information is s/he is allowed to…

    • Yes, Linda, I agree it’s always about the leader and along the way, that leader is always us, whether we’re the supervisor or an employee who “own” his/her work. The “hostage taker” is often under the radar. It can go on for a very long time before anyone figures it out. The more tuned in we are to how others are impacting our ability to perform, the more likely we are to see who the obstacles are and what they are doing. It’s then that we can take the next steps to put a stop to things. Thanks, as always, for commenting. ~Dawn

  3. Great suggestions to generate solutions to work together as a team and get work done and not get caught up in resistance.
    I especially like your suggestion of building strong internal relationships.
    I look forward to hearing more about each of your seven solutions. Perhaps ideas for future posts?

    • Nice comment, Irene. Glad the post rang true for you. I’ve had personal experiences with all 7 and the ultimate solutions that work made me a savvier leader. We all take our bumps along the way but are grateful when they become lessons that pay off going forward. Thanks,~Dawn

  4. Wonderful article Dawn!

    Your description of the hostage taking signs was spot on!! Ah, I remember those times “fondly”. I think what I remember most fondly was learning what to do about it! Your list takes all the highlights of those great books I read and seminars I attended and puts them into a comprehensive set – thanks!

    • Dan, thanks so much for your reinforcing response. I sure wish I would have had the benefit of those books and seminar before I got my baptism by hostage taker :-)! I paid a price or two before I realized who was hoodwinking me and how, but once my eyes were opened and the signs made clear, I was able to correct the problem. The sad thing is that when we’re held hostage at work, it’s not always a linear situation. There are many entanglements, one hostage holding another hostage, whole departments set up to hold other departments hostage. Our charge as leaders to clean things up, create transparency, collaboration, and ultimately an environment for success. Great to hear from you, again. Best, ~Dawn

  5. Hi Dawn,

    So glad you posted this. I was feeling overly sensitive and thought perhaps it was all in my head. I certainly do feel as though I’m being held hostage and have tried to get around this by working harder and trying to propel myself towards success without letting it get to me, or reacting to situations my coworker creates to make me look bad. In my mind our boss is an extremely intelligent woman who can see through the BS and isn’t easily fooled and this will eventually all ‘come out in the wash’. Is this naive? It’s a very small office but my coworker is closer to the boss than I am (he is the guy that everyone knows and loves cause he is always cracking jokes and pranks where I tend to take my job more serious) So far he has undermined my work, re prioritized work loads I’ve distributed, cuts me off in group discussions and talks over me in conference calls and has even gone into my personal email when I left my desk for a glass of water and sent prank email out via my email address (now I have to lock my computer to get a drink, or walk to the printer? There is no trust or respect left!). He also makes fun of me with and in front of co workers, and every time I try and bring situations up I’m told to relax, it’s a joke…

    I take my job seriously and feel everyone deserves the utmost respect regardless of position, social status, age, etc.

    So – what are my chances I will succeed in my own right and this will all come out in the wash if I just remain focused and doing the best job I can? Or do I need to have a discussion with my boss?


    • Sarah, well, I don’t have to tell you this isn’t pretty. There are a lot of issues that are driving this behavior from your coworker who likely believes that by undermining you he is increasing his chances of success. The solution is NOT for you to work harder but it IS a reason for you to work smarter and to let him know what you will and won’t tolerate. If you TAKE what he dishes out, he will continue to do it.

      I’d suggest starting to turn things around diplomatically. You won’t like to do this, but you need to. That is select no more than three recent incidences when he has done/said things that are unacceptable to you. Then you need to find a private place and tell him what those things are, state that they are unacceptable to you (do NOT justify why they are, just state that you don’t like them and don’t intend to wave them off going forward…this is not a negotiating meeting, just a clear the air one). Ask him if he understands and ask for an explanation of why he is doing those things to you. Then go back to your desk and write a brief outline of what what covered, the date and time. Put it in your file in case you need documentation down the road. Then wait to see what happens.

      If he repeats any of the actions, then quietly go to your boss and explain the situation–that you previously had a meeting with him to ask that he stop, and that he is making you uncomfortable. You don’t need to say this is a kind of harassment, but it is. All you want is for him to stop what he’s doing. You can acknowledge the positive things about him but you are entitled to a workplace free of this kind of treatment. In some ways, it gets close to bullying. You are doing yourself, your boss, and your coworker a favor by nipping this in the bud.

      The challenge is for you to have the courage to stand up for yourself. If this coworker continues to get away with “picking” on you, he’ll just keep doing it more and more. Hope this helps. Good luck.

      Best, Dawn

  6. Thank you Dawn for your article and for your replies to others’ posts, as they are quite informative to my situation. It appears to me that resistant people have a weakling persona. I am curious about the resistant workers who are nay-sayers, yes-but-ers, and if-onlies. It surprises me when I see these behaviors after positive change (that they requested) were successfully made. I read these behaviors as forms of resistance but feel stymied about how to respond under these circumstances.

    • Thanks for your comment and perspective, DJ. The reality of being human is that all of us resist change, especially the more we think it will disrupt aspects of our lives. Yes, even change that we choose can give us pause, hence those instances of buyer’s remorse. So I don’t see resistance as part of a “weakling persona” but the essence of being human. That makes the manager’s job a special challenge, particularly identifying the potential for resistance in their employees and then developing strategies and communication that will reduce the extent and impact of any resistance. In time, with the right approaches, resistance will usually abate. The key is not to become frustrated because of the resistance but challenged to find ways to moderate it. Hope this helps. Great hearing from you. ~Dawn

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