Surviving the Toxic Workplace with Sabotage Savvy

“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.”
— Susan, RN

From The Briles Report on Women in Healthcare, (Jossey-Bass)

Sab’o-teur: someone 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; causes another’s reduction or destruction of self-worth and self-esteem. 

Do you know someone who fits the above definition of a saboteur? You should, because…Men do it. 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.

Women are different. The recipient of a woman’s undermining and sabotaging behavior is most likely not to know from where the action was generated. 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. When it comes to women being saboteurs, their target is usually another woman.

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 healthcare. Women supporting women is an assumption held by many. Unfortunately, it is merely that, an assumption. 

In 1987, my study on women in the workplace and the book Woman to Woman: From Sabotage to Support was released. Women’s magazines were appalled that a visible woman such as myself would publish that women were undermining and not supporting other women, The media — Oprah, Donahue, Sally, Jenny, Joan, and yes, even Geraldo — clamored to do shows. The book and topic were hot. Why?

As its author, I felt it ironic that so much attention came my way — 28 publishers had rejected the manuscript when it was originally agented for consideration. The attention though, was good news. Women undermining other women is not a genetic disorder. Rather, a learned behavior; learned as toddlers and young girls and reinforced by parents, other adults and society. My bringing attention to an activity that was harmful to others. Behaviors can be unlearned. The workplace that appeared to be growing in its toxicity could be changed. Easy. . .or so I thought.

Ten years have passed since that initial study. In it, research showed that 53 percent of the women respondents said that they had been treated unethically by another woman; only 35 percent of the men said that they had been treated unethically by a woman; and 65 percent of all respondents (men and women) said that they had been treated unethically by a man. 

Additional studies were undertaken. With the prompting of several VPs of Nursing, I focused on the healthcare industry — one of the unique female dominated workplace environments with over 70 percent of all positions held by women. In some, 99 percent were occupied by women! 

Healthcare is not the only workplace dominated by women below senior management — consider clerical, secretarial, banking, real estate, day care, social workers, teaching, flight attendants, paralegals, bookkeepers, retail sales and customer service representatives — quite a list and it doesn’t even represent all female dominated workplaces.

Sabotage Is on the Increase

The study released in The Briles Report on Women in Healthcare (Jossey-Bass) showed that 71 percent of all the women were reporting some type of sabotaging behavior by another woman. Men hadn’t changed much, and, they still undermined either gender. The increase of women reporting sabotage indicated a 34 percent rise from 1987. Within nursing, an increase of 42 percent. One-third of the respondents would choose not to work with other women; quite difficult in the healthcare field! Not good news for a workplace that is primarily female.

Does this mean that sabotage is exclusive to a female dominated workplace? No … it’s on the rise too. In the study of 5,000 women for GenderTraps (McGraw Hill) released in the fall of 1996, women reported that being undermined by another female ranked #3 in overall problems they were encountering. Reasons for the increase include:

* 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 and reorganizing, women are often impacted first. Because there are more women employed in healthcare, they are most likely the first to be let go and thus, must move in to “protect” their territory; 

* the degree of betrayal has greater depth and effect than respondents reported ten years ago.

Is sabotage exclusive to a female dominated workplace –such as healthcare, clerical, banking, flight attendants, real estate, social work, child care, 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 are. 

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 a casual at best. True friendships take time to develop.

When women reveal too much, too soon about themselves to another, they may give up information that can be used against them in a “shark attack” at a later date. Unless you are Mother Teresa, you have some skeletons in your closet. Reading about them on the front page or hearing about them from a friend of a friend may not set well. Avoid talking about previous mistakes, money problems and your personal relationships.

Women must learn that not everyone is friend material. Mom told us to be friends, to be nice and that our turn will come. Well, sometimes Mom is wrong. Someone who is overly friendly, especially on first meeting them, may be probing for personal information to be used against you at a later date. Every woman should ask these questions to identify their Saboteurs in the Midst(c) :

1. Does anyone feel that her (or his) job is in jeopardy? 

Any time there is reorganizing, jobs may be at risk. Saboteurs will do just about anything to protect their turf.

2. Does anyone routinely deny involvement in certain activities, yet know all the details?

Saboteurs are chameleons–they know everything about everyone, yet claim non-involvement.

3. Does anyone constantly realign their friendships?

This week, you are the best friend; next week, you’re out, someone else is the new best friend.

4. Does anyone encourage gossip?

The most common method to sabotage another is to spread gossip. Saboteurs gossip about everyone, including their “good” friends.

5. Does anyone keep a tally sheet?

Saboteurs keep track of who does what to who.

6. Does information pass you by?

Saboteurs strive to keep you out-of-the-loop and away from any pertinent or vital information.

7. Is anyone on your team excessively helpful?

Being helpful is great, being too helpful may be a strategy to make you look incompetent or to actually gather “inside” information about you to be used at a later date.

8. Does anyone stand to profit by another’s mistake?

Profits come from enhanced reputations, getting undeserved credit, raises, bonuses, and yes, your job.

9. Does anyone bypass your authority or go over your head?

Saboteurs are masters at discrediting others, including co-workers and supervisors. They think nothing of bad-mouthing another if it can lessen management’s or co-workers opinions.

10. Does anyone encourage others to take on tasks that appear impossible?

Saboteurs love it when another fails. They will openly encourage others to stick their necks out when mission impossible surfaces. Why? Because they look “smart” in declining the task.

Most women are confrontophobic

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.”

Nice Doesn’t Always Work

One of the most publicized women conflicts within the past few years is that of talk show host and businesswoman Oprah Winfrey. Oprah is confrontophobic … and she paid for it. After years of management and verbal abuse, nine of her producers walked out on her. They couldn’t take the antics of the executive producer anymore. Her long time friend and publicist sued her. 

Finally, she had to fire her friend and executive producer. If, she had confronted the executive producer years earlier, most of her staff may have stayed intact; she may have changed the abusive management techniques of her executive producer … and she may not have had to write a multi-million dollar exit check to her. Do you have a deep, financial pocket to get rid of problems? Most don’t. Oprah prolonged everyone’s agony, including her own, by wanting to be nice and not confronting her offending former executive producer.

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. And, of course, there’s a patient who sometimes gets caught in the crossfire. None, I’m sure, would be your choice if you were the target.

Must the healthcare workplace be toxic? No. The choice is yours.