Putting an End to Manipulative Attacks on Our Competence and Character
Workplace bullying and manipulation take many forms, including perpetuating unfounded attacks on our character and competence. A sneaky form of this is sharing unflattering information with us that has allegedly been shared with the bully, but which the bully is duty-bound to hold in confidence. The bully's report then leaves us in doubt about alleged third-party accusations with no means of independently verifying them. Do these third parties exist or are the claims simply a convenient way for the bully to attack and foment doubt while hiding behind the alleged claims of absent, unidentified third parties?
You may suspect this game if the bully begins with prefatory phrases like, "people are saying," "people have been telling me," or "some people have been sharing with me," and so forth. Your conversation as you attempt to understand concerns, and address them, might unfold something like this:
Bully: "People have been telling me that you [have said or done something or behaved in some way that is less than flattering and, at worst, is damaging to others or your career and future]."
You: "Oh, they have? I had no idea. I'd like to know more. Could I know who these individuals are? I'd really like the chance to talk with them and clear up any misunderstanding."
Bully: "Well, I told them they should share this with you, not me, but they really didn't want to become involved."
You: "But I can't really do much with this information if I don't have a better understanding of the concerns."
Bully: "I know, I told them. But they've shared with me that they were concerned how you would react."
[Notice that the initial attack is now compounded by an additional attack that you will react negatively to feedback]
You: "Well, please reassure them I won't do anything about the information other than to learn from it. I'd genuinely like to know so I can do a better job."
Bully: "Believe me, I told them how it would help to talk with you, but no go."
You: "Well, I'm sorry to hear that. I'm not sure how I can respond to this if I don't have correct information."
Bully: "I understand. Anyway, I felt it was only fair to tell you. You might want to think about it."
The conversation ends soon thereafter as the bully's intent is to drop a bomb and leave before being hit with fallout as you question the veracity of the report. If you've experienced anything like this, as I have, you can feel helpless, worried, and wondering when the next shoe will drop. How do you handle this situation? Conversely, if you are a genuine recipient of information to which others do not wish to be attributed, how do you handle it without being perceived as a manipulative bully?
Let's first examine the character of the person sharing this information. How do we distinguish a manipulative bully from a caring adult? Bullies often act as they do because they feel insecure and powerless and have a need for control. They may attack our competence because they feel threatened by it. They may hide behind their actions to deflect responsibility from themselves. And they may control information to make it difficult to uncover their true motives, such as, in this case, making statements like "people are saying" followed by unverifiable reports. In my case, I knew not to trust the report which was either patently false or presented with such spin that a relatively benign misunderstanding, that I could have corrected if given the chance, was catastrophized out of proportion to my offense. A caring adult presented with similar facts would handle the information in a much more supportive manner (discussed below).
If you find yourself in this situation, attempt the conversation as outlined above. Then, push back if you perceive, after a round or two, that the individual is spinning the situation. State you are not only unable to respond but that you won't because you have no credible information to respond to. Not only that, but you will take the information for what it is worth (i.e., very little or nothing) and continue as you have in your work because feedback from reliable sources counters the report. In essence, you are communicating that you will not entertain these sorts of claims nor be open to future similar reports. Candidly, you are seeking to stop the bully in his or her tracks.
This is not to suggest this approach is easy, or that you won't feel shaken. If you remain concerned, seek trusted counsel. Report the behavior and seek advice on how to address future attacks. Be vulnerable about aspects of the report that may have some truth to demonstrate your willingness to receive fair feedback and correct your actions. Make improvements based on coaching and feedback you trust. But if there is no truth to the reports, stay the course. Surround yourself with colleagues, opportunities, and self-care that will help ward off future, unfounded onslaughts. Conversely, and unfortunately, if you work in an environment where such behavior is reinforced, bullies are enabled, supportive colleagues and institutional mechanisms are scarce, and the situation is damaging your well-being and career, take deliberative steps to find a workplace where you will be appreciated.
But what if you are the recipient of such information and reporters are reluctant to be attributed? What if there is good reason for their reluctance because the target may react negatively?
First, evaluate whether the information received is credible and worthy of further exploration and possible discussion with your colleague or direct report. Engage the reporter in a similar fashion claimed by the perpetrator in the script above. Suggest that the feedback would be best received if they shared it directly with the target. Note how difficult it may be to convey the information on their behalf, particularly if the nature of the information risks divulging their identities. And explain that without a more transparent way of conveying the information, you probably won't do so in fairness to the person, and consequently, the concerning behavior will likely continue. Otherwise, thank them for sharing their concerns and let them know you'll consider the information and respond as appropriate and in a way that is fair to the absent target.
You may, of course, have independent information from your own observations supporting the reporters' concerns. This may include credible reasons why the reporters wouldn't want to go to the target directly. Or, if the information is new to you, you may feel the matter should be raised with the target who should be given a chance to respond. If so, approach the target and use your best skills for engaging in a difficult conversation, such as:
- Affirm your support and desire to help the individual be successful.
- Ask if you may share some concerns that may be helpful to the individual.
- Upon obtaining consent, share your own observations that relate to the information received from reluctant third parties. Be factual, objective, and direct (not circumspect or vague) based on information the individual can readily confirm as accurate (even if he or she disagrees about what the facts mean).
- Express how these concerns cause you to feel concerned about the individual's performance, behavior, or other aspect of their character or competence. Be empathetic, including if relevant understanding how the information may be difficult to hear, particularly if it is new.
- Only if relevant and helpful, share that you have received feedback from others to this effect. Avoid exaggeration such as catch-all phrases like "people are saying" but be succinct with statements like "a couple of individuals talked with me," or "I was asked by a colleague if you were doing okay." Note that you wouldn't mention this if you didn't have a similar concern and that, otherwise, the reporter(s) had reasons for not wishing to be identified, which you must respect.
- If the third-party information is new to you, but something you feel you should raise in fairness to the target, express that you neither believe nor disbelieve the information. You simply feel it's important to talk through the issue and, if needed and warranted, help the individual address concerns.
- Invite the individual's perspective. Demonstrate true listening and acknowledgment. Talk through matters thoroughly and provide further support such as coaching to the extent warranted and you are in the position to offer it.
- If the individual discounts the reports or provides a reasonable explanation, acknowledge this, and do not allow the situation to cloud how you evaluate, treat, or interact with the person in the future.
- If the individual would like to speak with the reporters, discuss how you will accomplish this. Likely, you will need to go back to the reporter, express the individual's interest in meeting, and state your confidence that the conversation would be productive and non-retributive. Offer to connect them if the reporter has your permission to reveal their identity. If not, let it go.
In my career, a supervisor or colleague has on occasion shared concerns with me based in part on reports from others. It was handled in such a sensitive, supportive way that it left me without doubt that others had reported a concern and without need to follow up and create an uncomfortable situation (or judge the reporter negatively). This is how we distinguish such experiences from the acts of a cowardly bully who drops bombs, walks away, and lacks good will, or who takes the word of third parties without attempting to understand our perspective.
The point is you can fairly and sensitively handle these sorts of confidential reports to support the target regarding the information received without being perceived as a bully intent on undermining the person. And, if you are the target, you can readily distinguish between someone intending to support you and someone intending ill will. Be open to one and push back on the other.