Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 12;   March 23, 2016:

Backstabbing

by

Much of what we call backstabbing is actually just straightforward attack — nasty, unethical, even evil, but not backstabbing. What is backstabbing?
Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was a German general and politician

Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was a German general and politician. He is credited with popularizing the "stab-in-the-back" myth explaining the unbalanced terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a position that led him to affiliate with right-wing politicians and eventually the Nazi Party. See Wheeler-Bennett, John W. "Ludendorff: The Soldier and the Politician," Virginia Quarterly Review 14: pp. 187-202, for an account of the 1919 incident that led Ludendorff to adopt the stab-in-the-back metaphor to make his case to the German people. The nonhyphenated English word, backstabbing, didn't appear until about 1925. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Probably because just about anyone can do it, backstabbing is perhaps the most common form of workplace aggression. The art, of course, lies in executing the aggression undetected. When things haven't gone as well as you expected, almost certainly, once in a while, Chance or Misfortune were not the only cause. A backstabber might have been involved. Let's take a close look at backstabbing — what it is, what it isn't, and how it's done.

The fundamental elements of backstabbing are aggression and deception.

Aggression
An interaction can be backstabbing if one person, the attacker, mounts an attack on another, the target. The attack isn't physical, but it must be a genuine attempt to harm the target's social or professional position or prospects, or to deprive the target of something the target desires or needs. The attack can be backstabbing even if it it's unsuccessful.
Deception
By concealing preparations, by lying or other disinformation, or by "false flag" conduct, the attacker deceives the target. False flag conduct is that which is intended to create a false belief that the relationship between attacker and target is friendly. Typically, attackers pretend to befriend their targets, or to mentor their targets, or to be disinterested in their targets. By whatever means, the attacker leads the target to believe that no attack is imminent, that the attacker isn't preparing an attack, or that the attacker would never even consider attacking the target.

Some definitions of backstabbing require that the attack occur outside the target's awareness, such as by spreading rumors or lying to third parties in secret. But a direct attack on the target at a meeting, for example, could also be backstabbing if, for instance, the attacker led the target to expect the attacker's support for the target's views in that meeting.

Here are more examples of backstabbing tactics.

Disclosing confidences
The attacker By concealing preparations, by
lying or other disinformation,
or by "false flag" conduct, the
attacker deceives the target
promises to honor a confidence, planning to disclose it later to harm the target.
Withholding helpful information
The attacker intentionally withholds information from the target so as to cause harm. This tactic is deniable: "I was going to tell you tomorrow," or, "I thought you knew."
Exaggerating
The attacker intentionally distorts or exaggerates a report of an event or situation so as to cause harm.
Lying
The attacker makes or supports claims that he or she doesn't believe, and which are harmful to the target. See "The Costanza Matrix," Point Lookout for March 16, 2016, for more about lies.
Stealing or misallocating credit
The attacker claims credit for the target's contributions, or abets illegitimate claims of others to some of the target's contributions.
Shifting accountability
When something goes wrong, the attacker arranges for the target to be held accountable, whether or not the target had any role in the failure.
Fomenting backstabbing
The attacker encourages others to engage in any of the tactics above.

When attacked, try to determine whether the attacker used deception. If so, respond with care. Other undetected deceptions might remain active, ready to foil any response you might hastily choose. Go to top Top  Next issue: Still More Things I've Learned Along the Way  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Acrobatics requires trustThe High Cost of Low Trust: I
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
Wilson's Bird-of-paradiseNew Ideas: Judging
When groups work together to solve problems, they eventually evaluate the ideas they generate. They sometimes reject perfectly good ideas, while accepting some really boneheaded ones. How can we judge new ideas more effectively?
Deepwater Horizon oil spill imagined in true color on May 17, 2010, by the MODIS instrument aboard NASA's TERRA satelliteHandling Heat: II
Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
Tim Murphy, official photo for the 112th CongressStrategies of Verbal Abusers
Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action.
The planet Earth on planet Earth on April 17, 2019Unintended Condescension: II
Intentionally making condescending remarks is something most of us do only when we lose control. But anyone at any time can inadvertently make a remark that someone else experiences as condescending. We explored two patterns to avoid last time. Here are two more.

See also Conflict Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A beach at sunsetComing August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of CongressAnd on August 11: Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't
Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternative assessments are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment. Available here and by RSS on August 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.