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

Backstabbing

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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 non-hyphenated 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

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