“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.

It was a busy week and busier weekend, so it’s re-run time again. This is one of my all-time favorites: The Desk o’ Death and why it’s a manager’s dream assignment. It first appeared, in InfoWorld, 12/11/2000.

– Bob

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As every programmer knows, God was able to make the world in only six days because he didn’t have an installed base. Programmers rarely have that luxury.

New managers have a different kind of installed base to worry about. While the difficulties they face are not as technically daunting as creating a backward-compatible operating system upgrade, the social engineering issues faced by a manager taking over an existing organization present their own set of significant challenges.

When you take over a department, whether it’s through a promotion or a job change, you don’t get the luxury of designing your operation from scratch. You’re inheriting an installed base — an existing team, well-worn processes and ways of doing things, and an entrenched culture. But where programmers usually have a test environment in which they can safely find and fix mistakes, managers have to do their testing in the production environment of an ongoing operation. Missteps are very public, and hard to unmake.

The social engineering starts before you take the job. If at all possible, find out whether you’re walking into a problem area or not. If it isn’t a problem area, try to get a mandate for change from the reporting manager to create a problem where none existed before. Failing that, let some other victim take this no-win job.

Coming into a smoothly running organization is much harder than taking over a disaster area. How are you to succeed? Your chances of further improving the situation and having the team look to you for leadership are low. If your charter is to maintain the status quo, your predecessor will get the credit if you succeed; you’ll get the blame for any deterioration.

Compare this to the desk o’ death. The department is in shambles. The team is demoralized, productivity is low, waste is high, service levels aren’t. Whenever possible, choose the desk of death, especially if you’re the third or fourth manager to get the job — expectations will be so low that your success is virtually guaranteed.

So long as you follow a few simple rules.

The first is to keep your yap shut. Beyond the usual pleasantries of how delighted you are to have the opportunity, say as little as you can. Listen to everyone, in group settings and one-on-one. Neither agree nor disagree with anything beyond broad philosophical concepts, and above all, don’t choose sides or make any commitments. Offer no ideas of your own. Listen and make note of who says what.

In a desk o’ death, everyone has a private agenda and is trying to recruit you. Assume everything you’re told is biased. You have to piece together an accurate assessment jigsaw puzzle fashion out of bits and pieces. The moment you accept any individual as a preferred or unquestioned source of information, you lose your ability to lead — your preferred source will have established his perspective as your own.

So the first rule is to take time to size up the situation. Then you can decide what needs to be changed — processes, technology, reporting relationships, team members (chances are, if it’s the desk o’ death not everyone is a great employee), attitudes, or what have you. And, you can choose your priorities.

That’s the first rule. The second will have to wait until next week.

Until then, trust nobody.

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Since this is a re-run it’s only fair to provide the link to the follow-up column. Here it is.