Deflecting the Knife of a Backstabber

August 8, 2004

Your buddy from accounting just told you that one of your peers at the office has been slamming your performance behind your back, sprinkling his unflattering assessment of you with words like "incompetent" and "slacker." What should you do?

A. First and foremost, resist the temptation to respond in kind and fire your own nasty salvos. You have no chance of preserving the moral high ground if you simply pull the knife out of your own back and plunge it into your colleague's (as satisfying as that might seem at the time).

You might even begin by considering what you might have done to provoke the backstabbing, says Michael Feiner, who was the chief people officer at PepsiCo for 15 years and who is the author of "The Feiner Points of Leadership" (Warner Business Books, June 2004). "It's very easy to be self-righteous and look through the prism of your own perspective," he says. "But you want to explore what motivated this person and your own behavior first."

Q. Who cares what you did? How do you just make this person knock it off?

A. Knowing the "why" gives you a much better insight into how to stop the backbiting, says Mr. Feiner, who teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Business. Once, when he was at Pepsi, he said, he became enraged when he discovered that a subordinate had gone over his head to pitch salary increases for his team. Mr. Feiner stormed into the subordinate's office and leveled his accusations.

The subordinate calmly explained that since Mr. Feiner had always rejected his salary recommendations without listening to his case, he did not feel that he'd had a choice. That did not make Mr. Feiner any happier, but he said it did permit him to see how he had contributed to the situation - and how he could help fix it. "He was right," Mr. Feiner says. "I was a knucklehead."

Q. So you just walk into the person's office and explain that you know it's your fault he can't keep his big trap shut?

A. No. You should confront your co-worker, but without being accusatory, says Nina Christopher, a management psychologist with RHR International in New York City.

"Ask how things are going and whether there are any problems you should know about," she says. "If the person doesn't bite, confront them directly with something like, 'I understand from others in the department that you have some issues you're unhappy about with me, and I'd like for us to discuss them directly.' " Be specific, but don't divulge the name of anyone who passed along the backstabbing comments, she says. And always confront in private.

A. What if he denies attacking you?

You don't need your detractor to admit to anything to make your point, says Carl Robinson, a career coach for top executives who is based in Seattle. Your goal is to put the person on notice. "These type of passive-aggressive people are very fearful and they have lots of simmering anger," Mr. Robinson says. "They backstab because they are too afraid to confront directly. The individual has to know that you have their number and will call them on this behavior every time they do it."

He recommends responding to a denial with something like, "Well, I'm certainly glad to hear that there was some sort of misunderstanding. I would appreciate it, if anything were to come up in the future, if you would talk to me directly."

Q. So putting attackers on notice works even when they deny doing anything?

A. It did for Helene Dublisky. She was the director of a technology division at a large public utility on the East Coast when she was backstabbed by a colleague. The woman, who was once Ms. Dublisky's boss but had been demoted to her level, told their new supervisor that Ms. Dublisky had violated a department policy by using a recruiter not on the list of approved firms. As it turned out, Ms. Dublisky discovered that a member of her staff had dined with a friend who happened to be a recruiter, though no business had been discussed. After explaining the misunderstanding to her supervisor, Ms. Dublisky called the backstabber and firmly but politely confronted her. After a long silence, the woman simply said, "I have to go now," and hung up.

"I don't know if she was embarrassed, or didn't want to admit to anything, or what, but that was the end of it," Ms. Dublisky says. "I never had any problems with her talking behind my back again, though of course I never really trusted her after that."

Q. Should you talk to your boss about the backstabber?

A. Yes, if the initial conversation with the backstabber doesn't put an end to the nastiness, Mr. Feiner says. He recommends that you have a second conversation in which you make it clear that you will report the situation to the boss if the two of you can't resolve it. And if you do follow up with your boss, be sure to focus on how the backbiting sabotages the team's work, Mr. Feiner says. The idea is not to tattle on your co-worker but rather to ensure that your boss's perception of your performance hasn't been damaged by the gossip. You should also make clear that you are taking steps to fix the situation by discussing it with your co-worker.

Q. Should you bring the human resources department into the mix?

A. In most cases, it's best to let your boss do that, Mr. Robinson says. Bosses usually prefer to handle these types of situations themselves unless the backstabbing has become a pattern of your co-worker's behavior that might merit firing.

"Most bosses are going to look at an ugly situation, grit their teeth, and then do something about it because they don't want to lose good employees," Mr. Robinson says.

Q. Must all backstabbing be addressed?

A. Interpersonal friction exists in all workplaces, and if someone is being snippy about your choice of ties, just let it go, Mr. Feiner says. "You don't need to throw down the gauntlet on every issue," he says. "You need to distinguish between unpleasant gossip and a much more systematic, uncharitable drumbeat of backbiting that jeopardizes your relationships and your work."

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