On the matter of bad behavior of complaining against others behind their backs, Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I share the same viewpoint. This article starts with Randall’s cartoon, Ray’s and my quotes on the subject and then discusses the causes of and solutions for this problem. Please note that this article is not about ethical whistleblowers, people who have no choice but to complain secretly about someone in a position of great power and formal authority above them engaged in wrongdoing. Backstabbing (the subject of this article) and whistle-blowing are two completely different things.1 This post is about someone complaining against his peers, those he sees as competition or those who may be in his way.
I learned that I want the people I deal with to say what they really believe and to listen to what others say in reply, in order to find out what is true. I learned that one of the greatest sources of problems in our society arises from people having loads of wrong theories in their heads—often theories that are critical of others—that they won’t test by speaking to the relevant people about them. Instead, they talk behind people’s backs, which leads to pervasive misinformation. I learned to hate this because I could see that making judgments about people so that they are tried and sentenced in your head, without asking them for their perspective, is both unethical and unproductive.2 So I learned to love real integrity (saying the same things as one believes)3 and to despise the lack of it.4
— Ray Dalio, an American businessman and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater is the world’s largest hedge fund company with US$122 billion in assets under management (as of 2011). In 2012, Dalio appeared on the annual Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2011 and 2012 he was listed by Bloomberg Markets as one of the 50 Most Influential people. Institutional Investor’s Alpha ranked him No. 2 on their 2012 Rich List.
Quote sourced from Principles by Ray Dalio. Emphasis mine. Brief bio of Ray Dalio from Wikipedia. Thanks to my colleague Leon Shklar for introducing me to Ray’s philosophy.
When someone complains negatively about a problem, person or situation it often indicates a lack of courage, skill, desire & collaboration required to solve it. Worse, it may be for nefarious reasons.
Senior executives should listen to and reward employees who focus on solutions and support their coworkers. People in leadership should be wary of people who habitually complain about others. Since complainers misleadingly pretend to be smart or helpful, you should always question their motives, challenge their statements and let them know you will ask for others’ viewpoints.
Once you know about such behavior, you should strongly discourage it. The first step is to make sure you don’t reward it. When a senior executive simply listens to a complainer and does not challenge their statements and does not tell they will solicit others opinions as well, the complainer may feel rewarded with the executive’s attention and implicit approval. Things an executive hearing the complaints can say:
- What did [the target person] say in response when you told them this?
- Have you spoken to [the target person] about this clearly, honestly and comprehensively? I will reach out to them to understand their viewpoint. (This makes it clear to the complainer that they can’t get away misrepresenting things behind another’s back.)
- Do you have a collaborative solution to offer that makes it a win/win for both you and [the target person]?
Why badmouthing others behind their backs is bad for business…
Its toxicity kills productivity. Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management science at the Stanford Engineering School and a researcher in the field of Evidence-based management writes: [emphasis mine]
… if you want people to think you are smart, apparently you can feed their stereotypes by demeaning others… I should also warn you that although unleashing your inner asshole may help persuade people of your intellectual superiority, we also show in The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts that the climate of fear created by such nastiness undermines team and organizational effectiveness. Potential victims become afraid to try (or even mention) new ideas and hesitate to report mistakes or problems out of fear that the resulting anger and humiliation will be aimed at them.
It creates distrust among coworkers which hurts collaboration and productivity. It distracts focus away from productive work to “watching your back”. It lowers morale at work, which is also bad for business.
On the perpetrator’s side, it diverts creative energy away from business innovation, solving problems and achieving greatness. Instead the perpetrator’s talents, time and tricks are applied towards crafty, cunning and cruel behavior that only hurts the organization.
At its worst, when it becomes a rampant problem, it can lead to costly lawsuits against the organization. When you develop a habit of badmouthing someone behind their back thinking your accusations will remain secret, and you keep getting away with it for a while, you are likely to start saying things that cross the line.
Why it happens…
So why do people engage in smear campaigns? Simply because they have found them to be useful for their benefit in the past. There is ample evidence in multiple fields ranging from election campaigns to organizational behavior that despite being immoral, unethical and unfair, smear campaigns can sometimes be highly effective for the perpetrators. At least for the short term. In an organization with a bad culture it benefits the perpetrator every time they do it and there are minimal harmful consequences to the perpetrator.
I asked my friend Professor Jeffery Pfeffer, a well-respected guru of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business why such behavior exists. He explained that “It persists because it often works, and it often works because negativity and criticism seem more profound than positive statements.” He pointed me to his5 article The Smart-Talk Trap published in Harvard Business Review and the article Brilliant but Cruel by Teresa Amabile, now a professor at Harvard Business School. (The word “brilliant” here alludes to a pretense of brilliance, not the real thing.) Those two articles explain that people who disparage others or the work of others falsely appear to look smart and competent, even when they are not so in reality. Basically, it is a cheap trick that works until it is exposed.
The false feeling of being honest (when in reality they are being dishonest) in supposedly exposing the flaws in others and/or other’s work provides misguided gratification to the perpetrators. When the important person to whom the clandestine complaint is being made to (and it is usually an important person) listens to the complainer in private and engages in that conversation, the complainer sees that as a reward. This encourages more of such bad behavior.
An even bigger mistake a person in a position of power can make after hearing a one-sided complaint is to substantially reward the complainer. By a substantial reward, I mean giving a promotion, power or pleasure of winning. That is not only unjust, unfair and unwise, but a display of poor judgement.
A root cause of this problem is lack of courage. Another is insecurity. It takes courage to walk up to someone you have a problem with, to tell them that on their face with candor especially when you are insecure inside that your accusations will be able to sustain to a fair trial. It is much easier to be a coward and do it hoping the accused will never find out, at least not until it is too late.
Insecurity and an inner lack of confidence in the merits of their accusations are behind complaints that are supposedly backed by unverifiable sources. When someone complains about another and says “others have also complained about [the target person], but they confided in me privately and wish to remain anonymous,” the listeners’ alarm bells should go off. This method of trying to sully someone’s reputation by adding the supposed support of unidentified others is weak at best and disingenuous at worst. There is no way for the leader to know what the unknown people actually said, and if they did complain in what context and what state of mind it happened. Worse, this perpetrator could have baited them unwittingly into speaking negatively about someone they otherwise wouldn’t have. Remember that the complainer is not an unbiased journalist with integrity writing an article citing anonymous sources (and even they have to verify their sources to an Editor), but is most likely an opinionated person with an agenda. If you are a leader, think like a judge or a journalist. Don’t just believe what you hear, especially this type of BS.
On the leader’s side, the one to whom the one-sided complaint is brought, the problem is also a lack of courage. It takes courage to tell someone who is seemingly confiding in you and appears to be trusting you that you do not entertain such bad behavior and that you will put this person and yourself in a deeply uncomfortable position by bringing the accused in to the discussion.
Especially in this day and age of political correctness, being sneaky, disingenuous and cowardly is much easier than being open, honest and courageous.
Unless your organization has a great culture.
…and how to discourage it
So how should executives in an organization discourage such bad behavior? With a culture of continuous and consistent fairness.
In many cases, complaining behind others’ backs also badly backfires. I mentioned earlier that it is cheap trick that works until it is exposed. An effective way to hinder such behavior is to spread awareness about it, for example, by sharing this article. By making it a well-known fact in your organization that such behavior is bad for the business and backfires for the perpetrator, you eliminate its effectiveness.
People for whom such behavior has backfired, causing them harm instead of benefitting them, learn to not do it anymore, provided they quickly realized that it was their bad behavior that hurt them. The human mind learns best when the feedback is immediate or comes soon after.
Therein lies the key to solving this problem in your organization.
Senior executives should build and maintain a culture holds open courts. What does that mean? This:
- There are no trials held in private. Both parties must be present when any arguments are made in front of the judges (deciders, people with power). In other words, senior executives never entertain clandestine complaints made secretly behind the accused’s backs.
- The accused always gets a fair hearing. If the accused does not have the debating skills to defend their case, the senior executives should assign someone strong to support them in a public-defender-like role. Winners should not be decided on the basis or their ability to win debates, but on the merits of their case.
- Senior executives should be careful to never reward this bad behavior, and not even give the complainer the pleasure of indulging them in such a conversation.
- Most importantly, senior executives must model good, desirable and fair behavior themselves.
The last point is especially important. People look up to successful, effective senior executives. People copy the behaviors they see emanating from the successful person. If senior executives badmouth other people behind their backs, people who look up to them are likely to emulate that behavior. If they see senior executives as respectful, supportive and caring of others, they will learn that. Mirror neurons in action. Which reminds me:
Look in the mirror.
Some neuroscience research related to this
- The neural basis of human error processing: reinforcement learning, dopamine, and the error-related negativity. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12374324
- Coping with Emotions Past: The Neural Bases of Regulating Affect Associated with Negative Autobiographical Memories http://selfcontrol.psych.lsa.umich.edu/papers/Kross_etal_2009_BP.pdf
(Shared by Cameron Brown)
In person learning
- Interpersonal Dynamics for High-Performance Executives, an executive program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business directed by Dr. David L. Bradford teaches some excellent ways of providing constructive feedback to each other in organizations.
- My talk on this topic (under construction):
- For whistle-blowing, there are formal established means. For example, speaking with legal authorities, human resources, or journalists, depending on the situation.
- It is unethical because a basic principle of justice is that everyone has the right to face his accuser. And it is unproductive because it does not lead to the exploration of “Is it true?” which can lead to understanding and improvement. — Ray Dalio
- I do not mean that you should say everything you think, just that what you do say matches your thoughts. — Ray Dalio
- The word “integrity” is from the Latin root “integer,” which means “one” i.e., that you are the same inside and out. Most people would be insulted if you told them that they don’t have integrity—but how many people do you know who tell people what they really think? — Ray Dalio
- co-authored with Bob Sutton