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Career Coach: Dealing with back stabbers at work

By Joyce E.A. Russell

People often have to deal with difficult colleagues at work. Many people have asked me how to deal with them, especially with back stabbers.

Back stabbers engage in underhanded tactics that make you look bad. Sometimes they engage in passive-aggressive actions. For example, someone tells you he’ll do something, but he just never quite gets around to it. Maybe a colleague says to you, “Sure, I’ll let the boss know you did most of the work on that project,” and then never tells the boss.

Back-stabbing behaviors — such as turning the boss against someone — are vindictive, deceitful, sneaky, vengeful, nasty, conniving. Back stabbing is especially tough to deal with when the person is someone you consider a trusted friend or colleague.

Generally, people engage in back-stabbing behaviors to gain something for themselves and gain power over you. Some would say they are insecure or jealous of your success. Maybe everyone’s been raving about how great you are with clients. The back stabber smiles at you, congratulates you and then behind your back attacks. His goal (whether he realizes it or not) is to put himself in a position of power over you. He wants to be noticed and he thinks he will need you to look bad or inept in order for him to look better. This is especially common in organizations where everyone is fighting over scarce resources.

When dealing with back stabbers, it’s important to maintain your positive sense of self and don’t turn into a back stabber yourself.

• Assess the situation carefully. Don’t overreact or react too quickly before thinking through your response. Take time to write down what the person is saying and what you actually did. For example, if the back stabber says you really didn’t spend much time on a project, then document the time you did spend. Have this available in case you need to show it to someone.

• Don’t underestimate a back stabber’s power. Don’t ignore the behavior or laugh it off, and don’t offend the person more.

• Try calmly confronting the back stabber about his passive-aggressive behavior or negative comments. This is very tricky. Practice what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Use a style that will work with the person without escalating the situation. This could be an approach that starts with: “I really value our working relationship. Can you help me understand. . . .” Or perhaps just letting the person know you are aware of what he is doing is enough to get him to stop. Just be prepared for denials. You may need to calmly share evidence that he or she has engaged in these behaviors, what the impact has been, and what the consequences will be if they continue. It is important to keep a very calm tone and demeanor and good eye contact.

• Another option: Calmly confront the back stabber in a public forum. For example, suppose he told you he supported your idea but then trashed it in a meeting. In the public meeting, you could (calmly and coolly) say something like “I’m surprised to hear that you are not in favor of this idea since last week you told me you supported it.” Generally, back stabbers like to look good in public. Make sure that others in the organization, particularly those at higher levels, know about your “real” accomplishments. It is important to spend a little more time networking or having lunch with superiors or other colleagues.

• If the back stabber has told you that someone in the office doesn’t want to work with you, go to that person directly. Many times, a back stabber is making things up.

• Seek the counsel of your mentor (if you have one), but be careful about what you say about the back stabber. Don’t overly trash the person. Having friends in high places is helpful in protecting your reputation.

• Continue to demonstrate high levels of work performance. Show colleagues that you do put in a lot of high-quality work.

• Try befriending the back stabber and those who support him. It may seem like the last thing you would want to do, but it actually helps. People are less likely to engage in tactics against you if you are friends with them. If you were initially friendly, maybe it’s a good time to get together to learn more about what is going on in their life. Just listening to someone vent about their situation enables them to feel closer to you.

• Take the high road. Some might say you should also engage in back-stabbing behaviors, but I have often seen that escalate to the point where both parties are seriously hurt so no one wins. Fostering all that anger, frustration and vindictive behavior is consuming and sucks up so much personal energy. It can be more damaging than the initial behaviors of the back stabber. Stay positive and confident for your own well-being.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, negotiations and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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