Office Politics, Gossip and Backstabbing: What Can You Do?
In the current environment, politics is increasingly epitomized by strategies to sabotage, undercut, or discredit anyone who is seen as the competition. Office politics can take on the same characterization. In some places, building an intensely competitive culture is intentional because the leaders have the mistaken belief that it ultimately is the best way to achieve higher levels of productivity, performance and innovation. In fact, office politics is inevitable in most organizations and it can easily turn toxic when there is distrust, fear, uncertainty, or scarcity in resources and opportunities. So what can you do to avoid being sucked into the fray or becoming collateral damage?
Having a blind eye to office politics won’t protect you or help you further your career. Instead, the best defense is a good offense. Become politically savvy by sizing up the political landscape through observation—who are the influencers and honest brokers, as well as the derailers and pot stirrers. What do they each care about? Look for red flags, such as the prevalence of gossip and backstabbing that suggest low levels of trust and high levels of competition. Being politically savvy means understanding and thriving in spite of office politics, rather than getting tripped up by or engaging in it.
Once you understand the political dynamics in your organization, insulate yourself as best you can by:
• Focusing on your job and making a positive difference, rather than focusing on all the things that you can’t control that are going on around you.
• Being inclusive in all that you do. This tells people you are open to and value different points of view. It is much better to bond with people by including them in something constructive than to bond by complaining or gossiping with them.
• Building strong, broad networks of people who trust you and will advocate for you. You can demonstrate your trustworthiness by delivering on your commitments and being generous in giving support and recognition to others.
• Being transparent. Be open about your intentions and apprehensions so others are not later surprised, and then feel betrayed.
• Keeping confidential information confidential, even if the information is your own to hold or share. A good rule is to only say what you are willing to be quoted on, and only share private information when there is a legitimate business need and right.
Let’s say you find yourself in the midst of a minefield. What do you do when someone gossips to or about you, or you observe or are the victim of backstabbing?
• Dial down your emotions and calmly assess the situation. Is this something you can just let go because although it may be annoying, it is not seriously hurtful or harmful. Perhaps someone is gossiping to you about something another person did. You could simply say, “I am sorry to hear that,” or “Perhaps the person was having a bad day. My experiences with her have been very positive,” or “It is unfortunate this is what people are saying because here is what really happened.” Be respectful, while not engaging in the gossip or perpetuating it.
• Confront the situation if you decide that to do otherwise would be damaging or reinforce unacceptable behaviors. Be deliberate about your approach and clear about what you want to get out of the confrontation. “Letting Sally know how I feel” won’t necessarily result in a positive outcome and may actually fuel the flames of contention. It would be better to go farther with your intentions, for instance, to stop the behaviors or to turn a thorn in your side into a neutral (or preferably supportive) colleague. Here are a two examples of possible approaches:
> A colleague is spreading untrue rumors about something you said that could damage your relationship with an important influencer. Clarify the truth to the person who told you about the rumor and enlist her support in setting the record straight. Go to the source of the rumor with the intention of understanding what contributed to the misrepresentation (e.g., did they misinterpret something you said). Let them know why this issue is important to you and what you have done to mitigate damage (e.g., giving a heads-up to the influencer about the untrue rumor). Discuss how to avoid a similar situation in the future.
> A colleague is taking credit for your work. Approach the colleague with the intention of understanding the context for what happened and to build a more collaborative approach with the colleague. Rather than getting into a battle over credit, it would be far better to focus on common interests and how to support each other in moving those interests forward for mutual benefit and the greater good of the organization.
The most important things to remember about confrontation strategies is to remain respectful and take a light approach, unless there is broad agreement among neutral parties that what has happened is egregious. Be diplomatic. No good will come from making the other person look bad, or embarrassing them. Look at this as an opportunity to build trust and create an advocate, rather than an enemy, while staying true to your values. Focus on creating positive outcomes and keeping lines of communication open. When it comes to office politics, as we have seen in the public arena, a response that is perceived as disrespectful often motivates disproportionate retaliation. Your best bet: Take the high road when dealing with gossipers or backstabbers. Be the one who diffuses, rather than inflames the situation.
Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.