OH.com Exclusive - Betrayal at Work: How to Heal Betrayed Work Relationships

Feb. 19, 2002
Does your workplace resemble "Survivor Island" more than it does a place of business? In this OH.com exclusive article, author Terry Bragg offers guidance to heal betrayed work relationships and improve the work environment.

"Survivor" is a popular television show because it exposes human nature - both good and bad - but mostly bad because bad is usually more interesting. The alliance formation and dissolution, the strategies to win or to thwart others and the blatant lying, deceit and betrayal capture the attention of viewers. All of this is done in the name of playing the game, surviving another day and winning the grand prize.

I read comments recently by a psychologist who said that the tactics used by the participants on "Survivor" would not be successful in the workplace. The psychologist claimed collaboration and trust are key ingredients for succeeding at work.

I agree that collaboration and trust are important contributors for success at work. In my experience, though, viewers watch "Survivor" because the show displays the same types of behavior they see regularly in the workplace. They regularly see the survivors' behavior - the deceit and maneuvering for self-gain at the expense of others - from coworkers and from the organizations they work for.

Organizational cultures often encourage betrayal and other survivor behavior by employees. You can easily recognize the factors that promote these behaviors: incongruent goals, shifting coalitions, excuse making, finger pointing and a history of tolerating violations of trust.

For example, downsizing is the corporate version of Survivor Island. Downsizing pits employees against each other. Not everyone will survive and some surviving employees will benefit from the downsizing. Downsizing also promotes turf building and coalition building, and it encourages false or misleading communication to hide the layoff that follows. Companies that downsize have a difficult time building effective teams, and getting workers to cooperate. They are also the companies that often complain that workers are no longer loyal to their employers. Do they really expect workers to be loyal to companies that treat them like commodities?

Types of Betrayal

Betrayal comes in three types: unintentional, premeditated and opportunistic. Unintentional betrayal is violating trust without intending to do so. For example, a worker may inadvertently reveal confidential information without intending to reveal it. This is the classic slip of the tongue.

Premeditated betrayal is entering a trusting relationship to betray the other person. Spies are examples of premeditated betrayers. Premeditated betrayal often happens during corporate mergers. For example, managers in the acquiring company assure staff members in the acquired company that they have jobs in the new organization. The managers know that once they gain sensitive information from the employers, or the employees complete critical short-term projects, the company will fire them.

Opportunistic betrayers intend to betray the other party but do not enter the relationship for that purpose. The right circumstances and the belief that they will gain more through betrayal than by acting with integrity cause the opportunistic betrayer to yield to temptation. The opportunistic betrayer assesses the potential benefits of betrayal, the probability of getting caught, and the severity of the penalties they will suffer if someone catches them.

Most betrayals are opportunistic. Coworkers don't intend to betray each other. They simply give in when the opportunity arises. Gossiping, backstabbing and taking undeserved credit are common examples of workplace betrayals by coworkers.

Organizations experiencing lack of trust by employees usually commit unintentional or opportunistic acts of betrayal. Poor delegation, miscommunication, constantly shifting priorities, abusive management styles and repeated reorganizations to cover up mismanagement are examples of behavior that employees may perceive as betrayal of their trust. Although the actions seem minor in isolation, they quickly add up to create a culture characterized by lack of trust and feelings of betrayal.

Organizations do all of this in the name of playing the business game ("It was a business decision."), and surviving another day. To build and sustain trust within the workplace, we must change the game we are playing.

7 Steps To Heal a Betrayed Work Relationship

Betrayal of trust in the workplace is common and its effects are lasting. Workers experience betrayal by coworkers, managers and the organization. Betrayal experiences range from not showing up at an appointment to deliberate sabotage.

Rebuilding trusting relationships and overcoming feelings of betrayal are key issues in many organizations. Distrust, disillusionment and cynicism often plague organizations. When I consult with organizations, people often ask me for quick cures to the problems of getting people to trust each other and the organization. Unfortunately, miracle cures usually don't work.

Once someone violates a trust relationship, repairing the damage is not easy. People rebuild trust slowly and deliberately. Violated parties are looking for examples of continuing betrayal. Their guard is up. To repair their damaged reputation, the betrayer must constantly be on their best behavior.

Seven steps will help you or your organization repair the damage of betrayed relationships. These steps may seem like therapy because they are part of a therapeutic process for individuals and organizations.

Step One: Observe and acknowledge the situation. Comment on the apparent lack of trust and perceived betrayal. Acknowledge consciously what people know subconsciously or whisper about in private. Raise the issue to conscious awareness.

Step Two: Address feelings and emotions. Actual betrayal and perceived betrayal hurt. You must address the emotions people are experiencing. Allow them to vent safely. Listen. Empathize. Understand what people have experienced and where they are coming from. This step is not about judging who is right or wrong. Instead, this step is about understanding: understanding how people perceive what has happened to them, and understanding how they feel about it.

Step Three: Get support. Effective personal change programs encourage people to get support. The same is also true for organizational change programs. Get the help of experts who can facilitate the healing process, or who have successfully been through similar situations. Employees may need the support of counselors to guide them through the change process.

Step Four: Learn from the experience. Reframe the experience so that you can learn from it. What did we learn from this? What will we do differently next time? How can we prevent this from happening again? How can you look at the experience differently so you can benefit from the experience? You can't change the past, but you can view it differently by looking for the learning you gained from the experience.

Step Five: Take responsibility. How did you contribute to the situation? What role did you play in the betrayal? This step may include acknowledging your motives and expectations.

Step Six: Forgive. Forgive yourself and forgive others. Forgiveness is therapeutic. Forgiveness is important for letting the situation go. Through forgiveness, you release yourself, the other person and the event. Forgiving does not mean you are naïve or stupid. You must take steps to protect yourself from repeated betrayal.

Step Seven: Move on. Let go of the situation and then move on. Again, this doesn't mean that you forget. You may remember the situation and what you learned from it so you don't make the same mistakes again. Focus on the future.

This process works with both individuals and with organizations. Organizations often try to ignore instances of perceived betrayal or to gloss over them because they think they are not a big deal. The acts leading to feelings of betrayal may seem minor and unintentional. Soon, the organization finds itself mire in distrust and cynicism.

The first two steps in the betrayal healing process are critical. To rebuild a trusting relationship with employees, an organization must acknowledge what it has done and allow employees to vent their feelings.

Managers can use this process to help conflicting coworkers heal and restore their working relationship.

Betrayal of trust can destroy work relationships. Use the betrayal healing process to help repair damaged relationships. But don't expect miracles, because once violated, trust is difficult to restore.

For a free copy of "How to Improve Trust in Work Relationships," fax your letterhead with your name, address, e-mail address and the words "TRUST IN WORK RELATIONSHIPS" to (801) 288-9303, or e-mail the information to [email protected].

About the author: Terry Bragg runs a company called Peacemakers Training in Salt Lake City, Utah, and is the author of the book "31 Days to High Self-Esteem." He works with organizations to create a workplace where people want to work, and with managers who want their people to work together better. For further information, contact him at Peacemakers Training, 5485 South Chaparral Drive, Murray, Utah 84123; (800) 288-9303; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site: www.terrybragg.com.

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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