3 Reasons Employees Undermine Co-Workers, Stab Each Other in the Back and Act Passive Aggressive

As a subscriber to this blog you are probably familiar with my 2011 report on The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication, which has become a live workshop/seminar and webinar.

The more I deliver this workshop and webinar, and the more conversations I have with business leaders who are asking me to help them fix the negative, toxic work environments created by these 7 communication sins, the more I’m beginning to develop even greater insights into how they infiltrate a workforce and the impact they have.

Just this week I’ve had conversations with 3 prospective clients that were dealing with a workplace with teams of employees violating Communication Sin #3, A Lack of Directness & Candor. This manifests in employees undermining their co-workers, stabbing each other in the back or throwing each other under the bus (use whatever metaphor that fits), and acting in a passive-aggressive manner that erodes the trust necessary for a high-performance, positive workplace.

In order to solve any problem we need to first identify its cause, here are 3 causes for why this phenomenon occurs in work environments:

1) Low levels of self-esteem
Low self-esteem is an epidemic in today’s society. Self-esteem is hard to measure directly and can best be measured by one’s actions, such as:

  • One strong indicator of low self-esteem is an inability or unwillingness to deal with issues directly at the source and a propensity to find alternative inappropriate ways to communicate (e.g., talking behind people’s back, putting other’s down to make themselves look good, etc.). These inappropriate outlets for communication both, unintentionally and intentionally (depending on the situation), erode the trust necessary for healthy, respectful and trusting relationships.
  • Low self-esteem also manifests when people react defensively when challenged or offered constructive feedback.
  • Another indication of low self-esteem is an individual who seems to lack any semblance of self-awareness and is not willing to look at ways to grow and improve. They often have the belief that “I am who I am, take me or leave me.” This is a destructive self-defense mechanism.

2) Lack of communication skills
When human beings lack confidence in their communication skills it is difficult for them to communicate in a way that supports their ego. People lacking effective communication skills are challenged to frame the conversation properly and apply language that both supports and respects the other individual whom they need to confront while also supporting and respecting themselves. So, instead they will:

  • Avoid the direct and candid conversations necessary to build trust between them and their teammates;
  • Talk to everyone about the issue except the person they need to, so everyone knows what’s happening and it always will get back to the subject, undermining trust between the two individuals, and the others;
  • Procrastinate on confronting issues allowing them to grow, fester and create building resentments between those directly, and indirectly, impacted.

3) Enabling of the behavior

  • Because low self-esteem and a lack of leadership communication skills is also rampant among even the most sophisticated and educated business leaders, they, too, engage in the above behaviors and often fail to address these damaging communication issues within their own work environment. Thus, they perpetuate.
  • Unless and until these issues are confronted, they will persist. Business leaders that are aware of these communication issues taking place in their work environment and are either unwilling or unable to address them, are enabling the behavior, and are teaching all those in the work environment that the behavior is acceptable. Thus, it perpetuates.

If you are experiencing any of the above workplace communication challenges and would like help in addressing them in a direct and respectful manner, click this link to learn about and schedule a private, 1:1 Leadership Communication Strategy Session.

’til next time, make it a great week!

3 thoughts on “3 Reasons Employees Undermine Co-Workers, Stab Each Other in the Back and Act Passive Aggressive

  1. Lauren says:

    I have the opposite problem. One of my employees is a bully and after many complaints about her she started a hate campaign about me with two other employees. Thus, always deliberately twisting what she is told and gettin the other two employees to lie for her is making me afraid for my job. HR and the dir where I work have been informed but, they are also afraid of this employee. This is in new york state. HR and the dir do not want me to give them any directives in writing and want me to “counsel” them alone. I think this is unsafe and I am being set up. What can I do?

  2. K taylor says:

    What about the coworker who tries to get a raise by complaining that you make more than him and puts on a charade that they are working so much harder than you.

  3. Skip Weisman, Workplace Communication Expert says:

    Thank you for stopping by and being inspired to ask a question about your situation.
    This is a performance management issue and shouldn’t have anything to do with you. If the manager/supervisor or company leader, whomever is responsible for managing employee performance and results, is doing their job effectively, they will know who’s achieving required performance results and who is not.

    Complaining about pay comparison is not the way to get a raise. If that is their approach and style that really is none of your concern. Do your job, focus on providing high value to the company you work with and discuss with those responsible about your contribution and its value. Nothing else should matter. Forget about your co-worker, it’s not productive.

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