How to Hug your Backstabber

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When Eric Urtiaga started his new job as a Product Manager for a nutritional products company in San Diego, he was looking forward to having an impact on a market that he cared a lot about. Eric was passionate about maintaining a healthy mind, body and spirit, at work and in the rest of his life. He had been told by co-workers at his previous employer that his attitude and energy were was one of the reasons they looked forward to coming to work each day.

So it came as a shock to Eric when he heard that someone at the new company was talking about him behind his back, and not in a good way.

"He doesn't have the educational or research credentials we need to advance our products," sniffed Marlene, the corporate communications manager. She seemed to take every opportunity to second guess his ideas for new product introductions and current product promotions. And when he went over budget on a trade show booth, she mentioned "our budget problem" at several meetings, just to be sure Eric's boss was aware if it.

At first Eric tried to take the high road. He just kept his head down and focused on doing a good job. But Marlene was a long time employee with many friends and acquaintances in virtually every department. Over time her behind-the-scenes whispering campaign began to take its toll. Eric could tell that he was losing the confidence of some people, so he tried to address the issues directly with Marlene.

"I think somehow we got off on the wrong foot, and I'd like to start over," he said to her in a private conversation.

Marlene looked stunned. "I have no idea what you are talking about." Eric began to give her a few examples but she cut him off. "I thought you wanted open communication? I've been clear with you about my concerns, and when it seems appropriate I've shared those concerns with others. Our culture here is an open give-and-take environment where people are free to express their opinions."

Eric was getting nowhere with her, so he ended the meeting and thought perhaps she might at least think twice before talking about him behind his back again. Instead, Marlene went immediately to the HR Manager and filed a complaint. She totally characterized the nature of the conversation and told HR that she "felt threatened" by Eric's anger at her criticisms.

When Eric was called to the HR Director's office and given an opportunity to respond, he was shocked and (unfortunately) angry. She had so clearly lied, and the surprise of it all caused him to lash out. "I'm telling you! She is a conniving, lying bitch! That is NOT what happened! I don't know what it is, but she has had it in for me since day one!"

It would be great if this story had a happy ending. If somehow Eric had learned the "8 Steps for Dealing with Office Backstabbers" or something like that, and then he and Marlene eventually developed a productive working relationship. That would be nice. But the reality is that this did not end well.

For the next six months Eric's career at the nutritional products company spiraled slowly downward. More controls were put in place over his budget. His boss began to second guess many of his ideas and encouraged him to "Just keep the trains running. No need for new ideas right now." Eric could see the writing on the wall. The only bright spot is that he starting interviewing at other companies and was able to land a new position before the old one was taken away from him.

But in the end, Eric didn't really learn anything about how to handle the backstabber. He felt wronged and it is a story he now loves to tell anytime someone mentions the old company. I've heard the story several times over the past two years – each time "Marlene" gets nastier, more clever and more powerful.

So is there anything that Eric COULD have learned? Anything he COULD have done to make things better at the old company? Could he have beaten Marlene at her own game?

(Note: the Product Manager hired after Eric left turned out to be a good friend of Marlene who had interviewed for the position previously when Eric had been selected. Hmm…)

While every situation is different, here are some general guidelines that can help you when you are dealing with someone in the office who is clearly backstabbing you.

"Unless you're willing to switch jobs, you're stuck working with your office enemy. These strategies will help you deal with making the most out of your working relationship.

Get Close

While your instinct might be to avoid this person at all cost, this only gives them more room to maneuver against you. So sit NEAR them at meetings, not at the other side of the table. Give them compliments in an open forum so that others hear you saying NICE things about them. You don't have to lie. You can say things like:

  • "You've got an experienced perspective on this."
  • "I appreciate how much you care about this."
  • "Thanks for helping the team out."
  • "You're background and knowledge on this has been helpful."

You get the idea. Without going overboard, these compliments are intended to let OTHERS know you have an appreciation for this person. It will make their behind-your-back negative comments seem small and spiteful.

Should this person offer any criticism publicly, be sure to THANK them and let them (others really) know how much you appreciate the candid feedback. But try not to argue the point in public. Instead try something like:

"You've made an interesting point and I really appreciate the candid feedback. I want to think about it, to make sure I give this the level of thought it is due, then we can talk further."

Your goal is to "hug" your backstabber (metaphorically, of course) with public kindness, appreciation and professionalism. Even in private understand that in the mind of a back stabbing type of person, this is all a human chess game. So be careful about every move you make.

Eric's biggest mistake was in assuming that there could be a win/win outcome, because that was his personality type. And inherently positive people often get steamrolled by backstabbers because they don't understand the win/LOSE mindset. But you have to assume that the backstabber will always take every opportunity to defeat you, step by step.

So "hug" them. Get close. Never let them know that you are aware of their behind-the-scenes activity against you.

Recruit Allies – Carefully

It is best to never let anyone at work know your inner frustrations because you can never be sure which side they are REALLY on. Most people want to be on the side of the "winner" so if it appears that the backstabber is getting the upper hand, that is the direction most will gravitate to. Don't let this frustrate or depress you, it is simply human nature. We are drawn to perceived strength.

At the same time, even if you can't express your own frustrations, you can see the signs of frustration in others. Look for a subtle roll of the eyes when the backstabber takes credit for a project she only briefly worked on. Or indications that others are getting impatient with the backstabber. You can get closer to, and align with, these people. And if they begin to openly express their frustration you should listen attentively, but don't join in. This is still a chess game. Don't vent, just bite your tongue and take a deep breath. The same goes for sharing your feelings with your boss; when it comes down to it, to your supervisor (and to companies in general) it only matters that employees are performing. Personality clashes you're having with a colleague are low on their priority list.

Use Your Humor and Good Nature

Bullies feed on the fear and frustration of others, so give them NOTHING to feed on. Never let a backstabber's comments ruin your day. Don't let the bastards get you down. In fact, you should take pride in the fact that they are unable to beat you down. Instead you should focus on elevating others to show the dramatic contrast between your style and that of the backstabber.

If someone comes to you and tells you about a backstabbers comments about you, shrug it off with a laugh and say "I'm going to have to spend more time with her so she gets comfortable sharing these things with me directly. That way we can have a productive conversation."

If they criticize you publicly, at a meeting for example, you can laugh and say with gentle sarcasm "don't hold back, tell us how you REALLY feel."

No Easy Answers

There is no quick or perfect solution because every situation and every Backstabber personality is different. That's why I am interested to hear YOUR ideas…

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