How to deal with backstabbing or malicious rumours at work


How to deal with backstabbing or malicious rumours at work

Do you have a team member or colleague who appears to respect you, but others tell you this individual acts disrespectfully towards you when you aren’t there? This type of behaviour hurts emotionally, but can also damage your career and turn your team toxic. Here’s some advice to address disrespectful behaviour.

Added on 07 May 2015 by Roger Delves,Sona Sherratt

Dealing with disrespectful behaviour

Do you have a team member or colleague who appears to respect you, but others tell you this individual acts disrespectfully towards you when you aren’t there? Examples of disrespectful behaviour include colleagues talking disparagingly about you behind your back, attacking your work in an effort to inflate their own importance, taking credit for your ideas or work, undermining your decisions, questioning your judgment or agreeing a course of action and then dragging their feet.

This type of behaviour hurts emotionally, but can also damage your career and turn your team toxic. It’s also particularly tricky to deal with, because the behaviour isn’t directly observed, but, rather, is reported to you via third parties.

Don’t model the wrong behaviour

First, check that you are free of blame. Is it possible that you are unconsciously sending a message to your team that it’s OK to say one thing to someone’s face and another thing behind their back? Is it even possible that the disrespectful remarks are true? Leaders often forget how carefully they are observed: generally speaking, anything you are seen to do is assumed to be acceptable behaviour within the team.

If, after a cold, hard look at your own behaviour, you decide either that this individual is simply mirroring your behaviour, or that there is some truth in the reported comments then you need to focus on changing yourself before challenging the individual.

Be sure before you take action

Next, reflect on the reliability of the feedback given to you. Has the same feedback been corroborated by more than one person?

Poor communication and confusions can be key culprits in causing gossip to get out of hand. Giving feedback to someone based on another person’s observation can cause conflict within the relationship between those two individuals. It also becomes difficult for the feedback provider to stand by the feedback in the face of denial if they have not witnessed for themselves the offending behaviour. In turn, a good course of action is to try to observe the reported inappropriate behaviour yourself.

To ascertain the facts, consider asking one or two of the feedback providers to attend a meeting with you and the individual – this won’t be an easy meeting and it will call heavily on your good facilitation skills. Alternatively, ask the feedback providers if they agree to be named in a meeting you would have with the individual concerned. In this case you would need good quality detail, ideally from more than one observer.

Deal with the cause not just the effect

It is vital that you address the behaviour itself AND unearth the reasons behind the behaviour, as disrespectful behaviour is often a symptom of an underlying cause. Before the meeting think about any underlying causes. Is there personal or organisational change in the air? Is it the culture you have set for your team really one of honesty, transparency and authenticity?

New team members will often compare their current team and team leader with past teams and team leaders. People can join teams with a sense of loss that causes them to criticise you or the team. It might be important for them for you to acknowledge this feeling of loss so that they can move on.

Perhaps the culture this individual has left behind really is better than the culture you have set for your team. This might be a great incentive for you to re-evaluate and change your team’s culture. Equally, the individual may have come from a culture where it was the norm to behave in this way. In this case you may need to emphasise the different culture that exists within the new team. 

Personal or political agendas

Disrespect can be politically motivated. Is there a bigger picture, perhaps to do with office politics or personal ambition? Does the individual have anything to gain by undermining you and your position? One of the quickest ways to fragment a team is for political activity to become widespread, so it is important that you address this issue directly and firmly.

Unaddressed disrespectful behaviour from one individual simply gives permission for everyone else in the team to be disrespectful. This negative behaviour is infectious and swiftly becomes rife.

If the disrespect is restricted to you alone then you need to establish whether it’s disrespect or dislike that you’re facing. It is quite possible to work in a successful team with someone who doesn’t like you; it is far harder to do so with someone who doesn’t respect you. 

Demand professionalism, seek respect

If you find that someone in your team genuinely doesn’t respect you, there is a minimum requirement of them to behave professionally. It is not professional to be openly disrespectful about your team leader or colleagues. If, despite your best endeavours, the individual cannot and will not respect you or your position, that may be grounds for dismissal. You may have no option but to remove this individual from your team.

Gossip and backbiting can kill teams and destroy careers. You may need to take a step back and look at your own behaviours, build trust and understanding with your team members or take disciplinary action. Disrespectful behaviour can take many forms, and is rarely simple to deal with, but it must always be addressed. If you don’t do so you are not only encouraging others to act the same way, but you are also allowing poison to spread in your team.

Roger Delves, Director, Ashridge General Management Qualifications Portfolio and Sona Sherratt, Faculty Member, both Ashridge Business School

Follow Roger on Twitter @DelvesRoger
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