Dear Joan:
How do you handle a back-stabber? A staff member seems to delight in making others look bad (behind their back). She seems to build her self-esteem by taking others down.

Back-stabbers don't last long. The troops soon learn to keep their backs to the wall and their information close to the vest. In fact, back-stabbers are their own worst enemy. When an innocent employee is attacked from the rear, they usually act as a scout and tell people in their network to circle the wagons against the enemy. Eventually, there is no one left who will listen.

Unfortunately, many of these dirty fighters seem to know just how to set their traps in a way that makes them seem blameless or even helpful. For instance, they will often begin their poison pitch with, "I just thought you'd like to know..." They also are masters at knowing just how deeply to twist the knife by figuring out the listener's weak spot, as in, "...I thought you'd like to know, since she's pretty friendly with your boss and YOU know how much she wants your JOB!"

I think you've made a direct hit with your analysis. Poor self-esteem does seem to be at the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, this "attack them before they attack me" philosophy can destroy the team atmosphere and consequently, this becomes a productivity issue for the whole group.

In a large company, the back-stabber can be particularly dangerous, since he or she can start many bombs ticking before employees begin to trace the damage back to the real enemy.

It's best not to engage in direct warfare with the sneak attacker. They have more to lose than you do and they have already proven they are sneakier than you are and will stoop to conquer. Back-stabbers who understand the subtle psychology of dealing with people are particularly nasty enemies.

If you are the one who has been stabbed, ask yourself, "How much damage has been done? Will I make it worse by trying to defend myself or confront the back-stabber? If you feel that the damage is significant (for example, something was said to your boss) consider the ramifications of bringing the matter up directly. For instance, "I understand that so and so told you that I was.... She must have been mistaken, because the fact of the matter is...." The goal is to handle the subject factually not emotionally. Fight the temptation to counterattack or you could earn the same underhanded reputation as the back-stabber. No one wants to be in the middle of that.

In the end, the right people learn the truth about people whose intentions can't be trusted. An employee will tell a boss and the boss will become wary, peers will tell peers, and it will be time for the back-stabber to huff off and find a new job where he or she can be "more appreciated."

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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