Business betrayals: Protecting yourself from workplace treachery

Betrayal in business can come in many forms.

A supervisor who gives specific directions for a project, then lays the blame squarely on you when things go awry. An employee who fails to inform you of a high-end client’s unhappiness, leaving you blindsided and feeling the CEO’s wrath when the client cancels a contract.

In such scenarios, the person betrayed can feel angry, devastated, and perhaps unsure whether to ever trust anyone again. We’ve both experienced betrayals professionally and personally.

In all relationships we trust others, believing that while they will look out for their own best interest, they will also respect ours. Unfortunately, that’s not always so.

In business, there’s no guarantee that even a good friend or family member deserves your confidence. Regardless of how well you know someone, treat any business arrangement with due diligence. Motives can be hidden, even with the best of friends.

So, how can business leaders and their employees avoid betrayals that can harm them and their organizations, and how should they handle the fallout if they are betrayed?

Learn to trust wisely. Blind trust can make you an easy target because you ignore the potential for human nature’s darker side. But it’s also ill-advised to assume no one can be trusted ever. What you’re after is “wise trust,” which allows you to weigh each situation, assessing whether there is low or high probability of betrayal.

Listen to what your gut tells you. So-called “gut feelings” act as an early warning system. Ignore those feelings at your own peril. One example is Ingrid, a chief finance officer in the public sector, who was involved in the recruiting of a comptroller who came highly recommended. Ingrid preferred to handle reference checks herself but that was HR’s job, so she backed off, even though something told her this job candidate’s credentials were too good to be true. She shouldn’t have ignored her instinct because after he was hired the comptroller was charged with white-collar crimes committed in another state. For Ingrid, this became a triple betrayal — by colleagues who tried to make her the scapegoat, by HR, which didn’t perform a thorough background check, and, of course, she was betrayed by the man she hired.

Don’t seek revenge immediately — if at all. Planning revenge continues to provide the betrayer with power over you rather than allowing you to take that power into your own hands. It’s more productive to distance yourself from the betrayal and shore up your emotions with rational thoughts. That will help you begin to derive lessons from the traumatic event.

If you are betrayed, there is no need to beat up on yourself. It is critical to recognize that what you are feeling is completely normal. If you blow the event out of proportion, exaggerating its impact on all aspects of your life, you’ll only postpone your recovery.

The key to moving forward is self-compassion. Get yourself to a safe space, both physically and emotionally, and get some sleep. Being rested will help you think clearly and you’re going to need your wits to survive.

Reactions to stress differ. So, don’t worry if your immediate reaction includes anger. Try to balance it and take the energy to hold onto your power. Surround yourself with friends. Have the courage to move forward and leave the past behind. Learn to pivot. The formula for success is creating a new positive, self-confidence about work and informed risk-taking.

Elaine Eisenman, PhD, and Susan Stautberg are co-authors of Betrayed: A Survivor’s Guide to Lying, Cheating, and Double Dealing.

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