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Rudeness, incivility, criticism, and undermining take an especially heavy toll when they hit you without warning.

Do you ever feel like this poor guy in the yellow helmet? You come to work motivated, perform your job with diligence and pride, expect others to be professional, and BAM! When someone blindsides you at work, you feel a lot like this quarterback: wounded, disoriented, and demoralized.  To  protect yourself from surprise attacks, it helps to understand the strategies behind them.

Random attacks

Imagine things are working smoothly in your department. Business is steady, the workload is manageable, your team has been pleasant and reliable, and SMACK! One of your colleagues berates you without warning or provocation, in spite of your team’s stability and success.

Just because the sea is calm doesn’t mean it’s safe to take your eyes off the waves.

Random attacks by definition are unpredictable and super-difficult to anticipate, but they do follow one pattern: they tend to occur when things are going well, during times that you would expect people to be civil. Therefore, when you least expect them, expect them.

Baseless nonsense

Another way colleagues can blindside you is to criticize you for something completely arbitrary, or for something that could have been addressed numerous times in the past (but wasn’t). For example, they may disparage your style of dress, facial expressions, pace of work, initiative, length of breaks, time spent on the phone, or performance of duties outside of your job description. Although addressing any of these could constitute legitimate feedback, when the person has no basis for the criticism, has the facts  wrong, or waits months to bring an issue to your attention, then you get blindsided. Fortunately, you can repel or prevent these attacks with solid documentation, a credible reputation, and regular requests for feedback about your performance.

Manipulative trust-building

That’s a fancy term for “backstabbing,” which is the black belt of blindsided attacks. Gaining a person’s trust to serve a personal agenda is the essence of manipulation, and sets that person up for a painful, morale-crushing surprise. It’s not easy to determine if someone is just setting you up, or actually trying to build trust with you as part of a genuine professional relationship. However, manipulative trust-building often involves one or more of the following tells:

  1. The colleague offers you personal information, sometimes very sensitive details, to gain your trust.
  2. The colleague tries to gain your trust quickly.
  3. The colleague uses persistence, guilt-tripping, and other high-pressure tactics to manipulate you into opening up.
  4. The colleague’s demeanor and interactions with you are noticeably more favorable than with other co-workers.
  5. The colleague makes you many promises.

A client once described to me her strategy for detecting manipulation, in which she asks herself, “If this person and I were high school classmates, would we be friends?” If she feels any hesitation to say “yes,” then she maintains a stronger boundary with that colleague.

Although no method is foolproof, if you stay on your toes, watch your back, maintain a professional and well-documented work record, and remain alert for signs of manipulation, you can avoid many cheap shots and save yourself a lot of pain.

Failing to discern real trust from manipulation, this woman got blindsided via pie–but imagine how the tables would have turned if she had sensed the danger and dodged the pie at the last second?

by Jason Sackett, LCSW
sional Staff at CWFL


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