“He stabbed me in the back and then threw me under the bus,” a colleague complained, once upon a time.
“Well, at least he got the sequence right,” I managed to keep myself from saying, recognizing that discretion is sometimes the right solution for even the best of straight lines. I was also was just smart enough to avoid offering just-too-late advice.
There will come a time, in your career as in mine, when you find yourself on the wrong side of backstabbing, under-the-bus throwing, or scapegoating, either separately or in some combination.
In case you are or might be vulnerable, here are some pointers.
The first: As is almost always the case, an ounce of prevention yields the usual utility, so be on the alert for warning signs. Some I’ve seen:
Your manager isolates you from key relationships. Backstabbers and scapegoaters rely on their ability to control what others hear about you. If you have positive working relationships with some people who matter and your manager lets you know he’ll be their liaison from here on in, to ensure everyone hears a consistent message or some such pretext … watch out. There’s a good chance the consistent message will be that you’re the source of whatever problems might be cropping up.
Your manager informs you that it’s important to control what his manager hears. There are a couple of variants of this:
Variant #1: “She won’t have the patience for the complexities of the situation.” She might not, unless it’s something that’s about to blow up. And as your manager probably doesn’t understand the problem to the level of depth you do either, and as it is about to blow up, guess who’s being set up to take the blame.
Variant #2: “Alarming her about the risks and issues we’re facing would be counterproductive. We need to handle this under the radar.” Same situation, different phony rationale. Especially in project situations, risk and issue management call for transparency, so everyone buys into the remediation plan.
If you’re told to conceal the facts, make sure you receive this work direction in writing, and make sure both your manager’s name and his manager’s name are on the documentation.
And if your manager accuses you of just trying to cover your posterior, your answer is, “You bet I am. If this blows up in all of our faces, I’m the one who will need the cover.”
Closely related: You decide to discuss a situation directly with your manager’s manager and she gives you air time but expresses no real interest in the situation or your recommendations.
It might be that you cry wolf a lot. If you do, stop. If you don’t, your manager might be setting you up to be a scapegoat later on when things do blow up.
You stop hearing from people you used to interact with frequently and casually. If this happens to you, it might be you’ve done something to cause it. Assume that is the case and take steps to fix whatever you broke.
Even if you didn’t break anything, use your concern as the entirely legitimate pretext for circumventing a backstabber’s attempts to warn people off when it comes to being your friend and ally.
And, it all blows up anyway. The fact of the matter is, it’s much easier to be on the wrong side of backstabbing, bus-throwing, and scapegoating than preventing them from happening. No matter how much you work to preserve and fortify your working relationships with the people who matter, backstabbers are what they are because they’ve learned how to succeed through these tactics.
They’re better at this game than you are.
If it happens to you, your manager will likely recommend that you not try to fight the outcome or dispute it.
Sometimes, that’s good advice: Fighting it keeps the subject alive, where moving on to something else can give you a clean start … so long as those whose image of you has been tarnished aren’t an important part of your future.
But don’t take your manager’s word for it. After all, his name is on your performance so he isn’t a disinterested advisor. More, if you decide to fight back your manager is left with two bad choices: (1) Back you, which means he expends political capital on your behalf, or, (2) participate in burning you instead.
For your manager it’s a no-win situation. For you it’s a tough, tough choice.