Backstabbing in the Workplace: Beware the Ides of March

Annually on March 15 (the “Ides of March”) we are reminded of the betrayal suffered by Julius Caesar at the hands of Brutus. But backstabbing didn’t end with the fall of the Roman Empire. Less dramatic (and less fatal) versions of betrayal play out in workplaces across the country everyday.

In fact, more than 80% of U.S. workers say they’ve been lied to, stolen from, cheated or treated dishonestly by a supervisor or a co-worker, according to a Hogan Assessment Systems survey of 700 people.

On the flip side, when people were asked about the most important qualities of their all-time favorite boss, the number one characteristic (cited by 81% of people) was trustworthiness. Conversely, 50% described their worst boss as manipulative.

Does backstabbing pay off at work? Unfortunately, some of the same characteristics that typify the ideal betrayer are the same ones that propel many up the corporate ladder. The book, Citizen Espionage: Studies in Trust and Betrayal, outlined four characteristics that typified the common betrayer:

Charisma: There are three ways to influence others: force, reason, or charm, says Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, vice president of research and innovation at Hogan. Force and reason are rational – even when people are forced to do something, they obey for a good reason. Charm, on the other hand, is based on emotional manipulation and has the ability to trump rational assessments.

Self-absorption, or, more to the point, a relentless drive for self-advancement.

Self-Deception. The Hogan report says people are prone to deceive themselves about the reasons for their actions. Self-deception – lying to oneself – often carries with it the tendency to lie to others.

“Hollow Core” Syndrome. a pattern of personality characteristics refers to people who are overtly self-confident, who meet the public well, who are charming and socially poised, and who expect others  to like them, but who are privately self-doubting and unhappy.

“Having a betrayer in the office does more than just damage interpersonal relationships; such individuals can also hinder employee morale, engagement and productivity,” said Chamorro-Premuzic.

Gossip: The quiet, most insidious type of betrayal

Employees gossiping around the water cooler is a stereotypical American office scene. But more often these days, that gossip is traveling via e-mail, texts and social media. A survey by Equisys, a communications firm, says the average employee spends 65 hours a year gossiping at work.

The solution: Don’t let workplace-related gossip spread unfettered. Establish a reputation as an open-door HR department, and become a “news creator” rather than constantly responding with damage control to squash rumors.
Here are four good ways to tame the gossip beast:

1. Take note of subtle changes in the atmosphere. When your bustling workplace becomes quiet and conversations halt when you walk into a room—beware. Dispel the mystery by asking directly, “What’s going on?” Listen and respond.

2. Announce upcoming changes, when possible. If you can’t tell employees of changes ahead of time, expect rumors to spread and ready yourself to manage them. Stay particularly alert in situations that breed uncertainty. But be equally candid about the type of information you can (and will) share. Refuse to indulge in the rumor mill.

3. Head off rumors at the pass. Establish a reputation for having an open and aboveboard style, and encourage managers to do the same. If employees believe you’ll be straight with them, they’ll be more likely to come to you for answers. Couple that with an office door that is truly open and you’ll avoid 99% of the problems.
One trainer suggest employers post an office-gossip policy that reads: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it important? If it’s not, then we don’t listen.”

4. Tap into the grapevine. Fine-tune your “radar” and question employees if you suspect that rumors might be developing. Rumors grow when information is scarce.