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.
- 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.
- 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 targetpromises 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."
- The attacker intentionally distorts or exaggerates a report of an event or situation so as to cause harm.
- 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. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
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- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators
succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding
their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
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- The Myth of Difficult People
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
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- And on July 4: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: II
- When we feel the need to interrupt someone who's speaking in a meeting, to offer a view or information, we would do well to consider (and mitigate) the risk of giving offense. Here are some techniques for interrupting the speaker in situations not addressed by the meeting's formal process. Available here and by RSS on July 4.
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