How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers

This is a guest post by Cornelius Mota of Poise Catalyst.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to tackle office politics and become a master of it.

  1. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started
  2. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers
  3. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 3: How To Master the Game and Excel in Your Career

Office Backstabbing

If you are developing a career in a corporate environment, the question is not if you will experience backstabbing attempts. It’s just a matter of when this will happen. Therefore, let’s explore together how to best defend yourself against office backstabbers.

What Is Backstabbing And Why Should You Care About Defending Yourself

When you interact with a group, it is only natural that you will get along well some people and less well with others. However, if everybody plays with the cards on the table, at least the interactions happen on a fair basis. You can stand up for yourself if the case. Everything is transparent.

In real life, things are different. Even more so when there is something at stake. In an office environment, people are in competition for career development opportunities, power, money.

Some people choose to get ahead by any or by almost any means. This is how backstabbing comes into the picture.

So what is the backstabbing all about?

In short, it refers to actions of other people that are done behind your back and which are directed against you.

Backstabbing is dangerous because most of the time you don’t know something is happening, until it’s too late. The damage is done and you get in a reactive mode, i.e. you need to manage the outcome.

Backstabbing can be a long term endeavor or a one time event. For example, a colleague that acts positively in direct interaction may consistently undermine your position behind your back with your other colleagues, bosses or with the entire organization. He may steal your ideas and present them further before you are able to do it. He may take credit for your hard work. Or he may suddenly turn against you in a context in which you were counting on the support he promised.

There are many forms of backstabbing and sometimes you are in for big surprises, as people whom you consider good friends turn out to be fierce enemies. People behave funny when they smell a real opportunity to get more power and more money. Some may be good friends for years and then change dramatically in certain circumstances.

In any case, is it worth worrying about backstabbing?

The truth is that backstabbing is dangerous. In some cases it may not do more than leaving a bad taste in your mouth. However, in other situations you may lose significant career development opportunities. Or your career can be completely ruined in that company.

So I firmly believe you need to have a strategy for dealing with office politics in general and with office backstabbing in particular.

Always Be At Least One Step Ahead Of The Game

The most effective defense is to apply a blanket protection strategy in advance. When you are only reacting to a situation, it means you have already been backstabbed.

One of the most devastating types of backstabbing happens when someone discredits you in front of the key leaders in your organization, whether formal or informal. This may have consequences in terms of slowing down your career, losing a specific promotion and so on.

So how do you apply the so called blanket protection strategy?

Make sure that you identify the key influencers in your organization and that you establish productive relationships with them. At a minimum, be sure that your project successes have the right visibility. They should know that you do your job very well consistently.

Then, it would be ideal to ensure the support of more than one key influencer. How should you get this support? I’m not suggesting anything shady here. It should all be based on understanding these key influencers’ agenda inside the company and supporting them to achieve their goals.

  • Over-deliver in your job.
  • Volunteer yourself for projects that are top priority for these people.
  • Identify an opportunity and take pro-active action.

When you genuinely support people in reaching their goals, they usually reciprocate. You may not always be in a position that allows you to work on high visibility projects, but keep your eyes open and try to create such opportunities for yourself.

If you apply the above, when the backstabber initiates actions against you, such leaders are less receptive, if at all.

If you do have an issue in the organization, try to get influential people on your side. Make both them and yourself part of the solution. Backstabbers try to take advantage of the times when you are weak, when you experience difficult times.

Even if you haven’t solved the problem yet, let the leaders know that you are taking actions and take them on your side, as advisors. A backstabber would have a hard time to put you in a bad light if you do this.

Be Careful With Self-Disclosure

While trusting people is good, be aware that not everybody has the best intention for you at heart.

Don’t be excessively generous with self-disclosure, especially with people you don’t know well. And never let your guard down. In team-buildings, before and after meetings, during casual encounters in the copy room and so on, people tend to relax and reveal information easily.

You don’t need to become paranoid. But hey, it’s a tough world out there. Proceed with caution at all times!

Stay In Touch With The Organization

While you should stay away from gossip, you need to be in touch with what is happening in your organization. In many cases, this will also enable you to find out faster about any backstabbing attempts.

Steps To Take When Backstabbed

Despite all the above, you will face backstabbing situations that will take you by surprise. Because you may feel the situation is so unfair and the emotional charge is high, you are in danger to make decisions that you may regret later on.

When faced with a backstabbing attempt by surprise, here are a few tips to deal with them:

  1. Cool down! Don’t make decisions and don’t react when you are nervous.
  2. Gather as much information as possible and make an assessment of the situation.
  3. Choose your battles. Sometimes you are better off not to react at all, as you will suffer greater damage if you do. Other times you need to fight fiercely to defend yourself. Make this choice consciously though.
  4. Decide what to do and take action quickly. If you decide to take any form of action, do it quickly. In most cases, it’s a good idea to drive clarity. Confront the offender and have a clarification discussion. If there is a company program designed to help employees against abuse, see if you qualify and follow the procedures of the company.
  5. Take a constructive approach. Realistically, try to take the most constructive approach possible. Your objective is not to engage in endless fights with people in the company, but to solve the problem in a way that minimizes damage.
  6. Learn your lesson. Try to learn something from the experience. Even if it was not your fault, ask yourself if you triggered the attack in any way. Could you have done anything differently before, during or after being back-stabbed? Have you trusted someone too easily? Have you disclosed too much information about yourself? Learn your lesson and move on.

Final Considerations

To note, in my opinion there is a difference in how you approach backstabbing in a corporate environment versus your private life.

For example, in my private life, I get the backstabber out of my life. This is a luxury you may not afford though in your professional life, as you have to continue working with such people.

Therefore, make your decisions taking into consideration the continuity factor.

Let all negative feelings go. As they say: business is business. I totally disagree with the “business is business” approach myself. I believe we are human beings in the first place. But this is the reality of the working places. You need to smile, clarify the situation, establish how you will work/deal with each other in the future and move on.

Remember, behaving professionally at all times and genuinely helping people will protect you to some extent against backstabbing. It will also help you get the support of influential people after being backstabbed.

Finally, be professional and supportive with everybody in the organization, not only with the key influencers. I honestly hope that you do this because this is how your values dictate you to behave, not as an office politics management strategy.

In next post (and the last part of the series), we explore what it takes to master the game to its highest level and excel in your career.

This is part 2 of a 3-part series on how to tackle office politics and become a master of it.

  1. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 1: 5 Essential Tips To Getting Started
  2. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 2: How To Defend Yourself From Office Backstabbers
  3. How To Manage Office Politics, Part 3: How To Master the Game and Excel in Your Career

Image: hikingartist

About the Author: Cornelius is a life balance author and blogger. He worked in Fortune 100 companies such as P&G and Unilever and has over 10 years of business experience. Visit his blog Poise Catalyst and get his free course How To Become More Productive .
  • Bob

    Welcome to PE Cornel,

    Well covered topic on backstabbing, I agree we have to be careful who we divulge new ideas to and how. The backstabbers might be unhappy/frustrated because they are not reaching their goals, by helping them get their goals while simultaneous accomplishing yours is a feat which is extremely delicate. A possible idea might be to shift their goal focus outside your immediate area to another branch or organisation so you can achieve your goals and they can also achieve their goals at the same time.

    • Cornelius

      Hey Bob,

      Thanks for the welcome! :)

      Yes, I like your idea! Sometimes, more people can reach their goals even within the same context. If you fight with someone over an orange, you may find out that you are after the core of the orange, while the other person is after the orange peel. If they decide to go after an apple, while you are after the orange, then it’s even more straight forward.

      We need to admit though that in real life you can’t avoid direct competition. And actually I advise against taking responsibility for others reaching their goals (unless you are their manager / mentor).

      I would personally focus on reaching my goals, but in a way that is completely fair and based on adding genuine value. I think in the process it’s perfectly possible to be demonstrate integrity and be helpful to others. This will decrease the probability of being backstabbed, but it will certainly not eliminate it completely.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave the comment! :)

      • Bob

        I like your analogy with the orange Cornel, very true, we all have different goals and by finding out more about people we can help them by changing the atmosphere in where and how we work. The quote by Abraham Lincoln “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” sums it up for me.

        • Cornelius

          Hey, I love the quote, Bob. Thanks for sharing! ;)

  • Debbie

    Hi! Welcome to PE. I am a passive player and it has become fustrated to be in the game. Your article came into my life at the right time. The wisdom you have shared has given me a whole different view. Thank you. ;)

    • Cornelius

      Hi, Debbie! Thanks for the welcome! :)

      I’m glad you found some inspiration in the article. We always have options to make things better, even if sometimes we feel trapped by the circumstances. If I can help via sharing perspective on more specific challenges, just let me know.

      Thanks so much for the comment and for your nice words! :D

  • Jose

    Thanks for the very practical approach that the article was written, and the issues discussed and analyzed. It provides a guide even to those who have been working for many years, and not just for neophytes who may be newly recruited into an organization or institution.

  • Cornelius

    Thanks, Jose! We need to play the game, so if people find useful and apply even one idea, I’m happy. :) In the beginning of my career I completely ignored these matters, but now I know it’s not the wisest thing to do.

  • Talitha

    Welcome Cornel!!!!
    Thank you guys for this very helpful information!!!
    I recently encountered a blatant backstab by an older employee who went to the department head and complained about a task nor getting completed on my behalf
    Thank God the dept head and Director are familiar with my work ethics and put her on the spot. The director had a meeting with all of us and she still tried to throw me under the bus but the truth came out and she had egg on her face!!!!!
    Always listen more than you talk. Don’t feel the need to reciprocate personal information to your coworkers after hearing their personal stories.

    • Cornelius

      Hey, Talitha! Thanks for welcoming me! :D

      Yes, this is a perfect example for proving the point that doing a great job consistently offers you protection in such situations. If you do a good job, your boss knows it. The same if you don’t. So the best defense is to just over deliver and be genuinely supportive to people.

      Thanks for sharing this great example! :)

  • Frank Anderson

    Yeah, backstabbing in the workplace sucks. As you say in your article, you don’t know till it already happened. If your boss is any good, he / she wouldn’t take the other person’s word as the gospel truth but would seek out both sides of the story.

    • Cornelius

      Hey, Frank! You are right. When your boss is fair, you are much more motivated to do your best, because you know you’ll get support when needed.

      It’s a good idea to build a productive relationship with your boss, keep in-touch, have regular updates, get feedback and so on. If he’s in the loop with what you are doing and he knows you do your job well, backstabbers will have a hard time when they try to get you.

      Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment! :)

  • Heather

    Communication is key!

    I try to have the philosophy that I’m a problem solver not a problem maker. My admins have more to do than deal with squabbles and in-fighting.

    When I have to bring something to their attention I always try to bring a few possible solutions. They appreciate the effort/thought I have put into it rather than someone who is trying to get their own way.

    Best Wishes,

  • Cornelius

    Hey, Heather! If all people had the intention to be problem solvers, instead of problem maker, the world would be so much better! :)

    Thanks so much for your comment and wishes!

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