Becoming Sabotage Savvy

Last month, I gave a brief presentation on my latest book, Woman to Woman 2000–Becoming Sabotage Savvy in the New Millennium to a standing room only group of mostly working women over the noon hour. As I spoke, I’ve always found it interesting to watch the body language of my audiences. This one was no different. Some enthusiastically nodded their heads as I made various points; others looked at me almost in a dumb-founded glaze.

As a speaker, I routinely seek out those who are in synch with me. . .at least visually. Speakers do far better when there is a positive connector within their audiences. It wasn’t as though the glazed eyed blatantly disagreed with me; they just didn’t have the full commitment, that “yes, sometimes women don’t support other women.” Thankfully, they were in the minority.

Since, the mid-eighties, I’ve interviewed and surveyed tens of thousands of women in the workplace nationwide. What are their issues-what’s hot, and not so hot? Not getting the support that was anticipated or expected from another women-whether a co-worker, colleague or manager continues to register in the top three. As one woman said, “I didn’t want to believe it was happening. It was one of those times in my life that I didn’t listen to myself. I kept pushing it down, saying, ‘This isn’t true. It can’t be happening. She’s really not like this.’ When I finally opened my eyes and ears, I found that everything she did was for her own benefit. There really wasn’t any effort to do anything as a team member or a partner.”

Who Are They?
Women (and men) who undermine or betray others are usually individuals who are envious, jealous, and have low self-esteem. The action is usually done in a form of a power play. Their targets are often those who they believe have less self-esteem then they do. I often think of saboteurs as addicts. The action they create to undermine or put someone down can be compared to a “fix”-it makes them feel good/satisfied for a brief period of time. . .until another “fix” is needed.

A saboteur is anyone who consciously or unconsciously undermines or destroys another’s personal or professional integrity; creates mayhem in another’s personal or professional life; damages another’s personal or professional credibility; or causes a reduction or destruction of someone’s self-worth and self-esteem. A saboteur can act intentionally or unintentionally and can be overt or covert in the action delivery.

Backstabbers vs. Frontstabbers
Do you know someone who fits the above definition of a saboteur? You should, because. . .men do it and women do it. And, men and women do it differently. Men are more inclined to be forthright with sabotaging behavior, even announcing to the recipient the time and date it will occur. The victim is not a specific gender–anyone will do. Frontstabbing is a good description-no surprises, it’s out in the open.

If a woman is a saboteur, her style of undermining is usually different than a man’s and her target is usually another woman. The recipient of a woman’s undermining and sabotaging behavior is most likely not to know from where the action was generated. The backdoor approach, or backstabbing. All she knows is that something happened, or is happening. It could be the rumor mill in high gear; it could be taking credit for work she completed; it could be having a computer file mysteriously deleted; it could be being left out of the information loop, a loop that is critical in today’s fast forward info world; or, it could even be inappropriate advances toward someone else’s spouse.

If a woman is a saboteur, A saboteur’s influence in any workplace creates a toxic environment–an unhealthy place to work and be in for everyone. Mayhem, damage, destruction, undermining, betrayal, treachery and seduction are all synonymous with sabotage. Unfortunately, it is a universal experience in today’s economic, political and social environments. Particularly in workplaces that are gender lopsided-more women than men. Women supporting women is an assumption held by many. Unfortunately, it is merely that, an assumption. 

Sabotage is on the Increase
There are lots of reason why reporting of sabotage have increased this past decade:

  • Women are more aware of sabotaging behavior and are willing to label and acknowledge it when it happens.
  • There is an actual increase in sabotaging behavior due to the economy of the 90s. When it comes to downsizing, reorganizing, even expansion, women are often impacted first. Change creates fear and anxiety-both seeds for undermining activities.
  • There is more competition out there-turf games come into play.
  • The degree of betrayal has greater depth and effect with women then with men. Women are more likely to personalize sabotaging activities directed at them; men often ignore or blow them off.
    Is sabotage exclusive to a female dominated workplace–such as healthcare, clerical, banking, flight attendants, real estate, social work, childcare, etc.? No. Sabotage happens in mixed workplaces and, in male dominated workplaces. It just happens differently. 

    Create Awareness
    Can sabotage be reduced? Of course, with some work. The first step starts with awareness. Women have not traditionally referred to undermining activities as sabotage. But, that is exactly what backstabbing, gossip, taking another’s credit or not passing on vital information is.

    With your newfound awareness, your confidence begins to build. Saboteurs–the sharks and snakes of life– are constantly scanning their environment for people that they believe to have less confidence and security than they do. Saboteurs are bullies and bullies look for people that they can bully. As your confidence builds, you remove yourself from their range and they move on to other waters to ply their trade or attacks.

    Commit to Change
    The next step is to commit to changing some long established behaviors. Women often talk too much. Women tell too much too soon about a personal incident or about themselves without being discerning with their trust. . .or their friendships.

    Does this mean that you shouldn’t have friendships at work? No. It does, though, mean that friendships may have strings attached to them. Don’t assume that because you are women that your new acquaintance should be a deeply, bonded friend. At most, the majority of female relationships should be casual at best. True friendships take time to develop. You may end up revealing data about yourself that could be misused by a competitor or someone who doesn’t have your best interest at heart.

    Commit to Confront
    Calling or confronting another when the action is occurring or being made aware of is a key factor in eliminating sabotaging behavior. Too often, women get stuck in a “conspiracy of silence.” Many women don’t speak out, at least to the right people. Women are more inclined to tell their best friend, spouse, or relative than go to the person who is the perpetrator of the undermining behavior.

    As young girls, women have been trained in the art of avoiding conflicts and confrontation–most women are confrontophobic. If there was one change that women who had been undermined shared in the interviews that I have done over the years, this is it: confront the saboteur. When silence is maintained, it condones their behavior. It says, “Keep doing it. . .to me, to anyone.”

    Don’t Be A Player
    The final step in changing sabotaging behavior is to implement your commitment to not be a player in the game. Don’t just talk about it. That’s too easy. Put a bite behind your bark. When someone does something that is not acceptable, say so. If you see another doing it, call them on their action. To their face.

    Sure, it’s scary. But consider the consequences. Sabotaged women have reported everything from their reputations being destroyed, termination, to being accused of murder. Must the workplace be toxic? No. The choice is yours.