office betrayal

What to do when faced with an office betrayal

While we expect some office politics or complicated workplace relationships, sometimes folks are blindsided by an office betrayal.

As a leadership coach, I hear different ways people feel betrayed in business. Things like:

I confided in a coworker, who then gossiped to others and hurt my professional reputation.

I found out that my relationship with a big client has been sabotaged. My colleague is either trying to take the account over or ruin it for me.

I worked so hard on this project, but another colleague took credit for it.

My boss promised me that a job was mine, and then the company announced that someone else has been promoted.

I work closely with other team members and found out that they’ve made important decisions behind my back.

I trusted a team member and in the executive meeting they threw me under the bus.

I trusted a client to pay for or deliver goods or services, only to be left in the lurch. This has really hurt my business.

However it happens, betrayal is trust that is broken. It might be trusting someone you shouldn’t have or learning that you’ve been deceived or conspired against.

You’re left shocked, angry, sad, hurt, unvalued or indignant – or a combination of these feelings.

How devastated you are by the betrayal typically depends on how trusting your connection to your betrayer is (so being betrayed by a competitor might not be as upsetting as being betrayed by a mentor or a teammate at work) or whether the breach of trust was minor or major.

Still, here you are, left feeling upset, suddenly insecure and maybe even feeling stupid. Now what? How do you handle an office betrayal and how do you move forward?

Stay calm and assess the situation

Sometimes our first response is to confront someone and get to the bottom of things. Whether someone else has brought the betrayal to your attention or you’ve uncovered information that suggests betrayal, you need time to figure out what has actually transpired. Ask yourself:

  • Are you dealing with gossip? Hearing things second-hand?
  • What proof do you have that you have been betrayed?
  • How objective can you be about the situation?
  • Are you making any assumptions (check out our Ladder of Assumptions tool)? Jumping to conclusions?
  • Was there actually intent to betray, sabotage or deceive you? Or is it possible it was thoughtlessness or lack of professionalism or a misunderstanding?

Keep in mind is that others don’t read things the same way you do and they don’t see the world the same way you do. It doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong, it just is. Now, I’m not suggesting you excuse the behaviour just because they’re different than you – I’m saying it’s worth reflecting on how they might have seen it, before you confront them based on your own assumptions, and your own way of seeing the world.

For example, perhaps Rob tells you that Jane was taking credit for a project that was your idea. Was she maliciously trying to ignore your contribution? Or is it possible that Rob overheard only part of a conversation and doesn’t realize that she made it clear that you deserved more credit than she does?

Have that difficult conversation

You might want to either rage or hide, but once you’ve quickly assessed how you might be reading things differently than the other person, the next step is to have a conversation with the person you feel betrayed you. (If this is the n-th time this has happened, or it is so egregious you really feel you can’t face them, then you can talk to your boss or Human Resources, or someone else who has the authority to do something about it.) But, you should almost always have a reasoned conversation with the other person first.

One of the biggest things to avoid is having a conversation with someone else about the person and the situation – without seeking a solution. It’s one thing to go to a trusted friend or colleague or mentor and say, “Here’s what happened; how do I deal with it?” – which can be helpful, compared to, “Here’s what happened; can you believe how awful they are?” – which may feel helpful but now you’re gossiping. In our leadership workshops we call this “triangulation” and it’s one of the worst malignancies found in organizations and relationships.

It’s uncomfortable for many folks to confront someone, but it’s possible to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations. It is much better to have a private conversation (in person, not by text or email!) about something that is troubling you than to carry it around, building on the assumptions in your own mind.

How you approach the conversation is crucial and will set the tone, so rehearse how you’ll broach the subject. Remember that the other person might not even realize that you feel betrayed. Yep, it’s possible.

For example, perhaps you thought you were going to be given more leadership opportunities but the boss has assigned your colleague to head up the latest project. Instead of walking in and complaining that should have been your opportunity, state your concern and ask about it with more curiosity:

“You know how we discussed me growing in a leadership role? I was surprised I wasn’t a candidate to lead Project X. Could you tell me how you decided on the lead this time and what I could do differently to be considered next time?”

You sound professional, motivated and open to hearing how to improve. You’ll likely find out more than if you went in angry and might even find out that you’re up for something bigger and better.

Perhaps it’s a situation where a coworker didn’t keep information you shared private. Instead of going in angry and accusatory, try a less directly accusatory approach:

“I told you about the new business leads in confidence. I was really shocked when Janet told me you told her all about them. What happened?”

It’s possible this colleague will confess that he couldn’t help it and broke your confidence. It’s also possible that you’ll find out that Janet baited your colleague by pretending to know more. Again, there’s a difference between deliberate and unintentional actions. The result may be the same but how you approach the “culprit” will go a long way in determining the relationship between the two of you.  

Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, said it best, “Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can.”

To help ensure success in the conversation, be sure that you aren’t listening to respond – this is a time when you need to listen to understand.

If the stakes are higher – like you’ve learned that a team member you trusted has allegedly harassed the summer intern or someone is “borrowing” from petty cash – or someone is maliciously trying to ruin your professional reputation – seek guidance from Human Resources, a trusted mentor or even legal counsel. Leave the difficult conversations to be mediated by professionals with experience handling these more delicate situations.

Otherwise, take a few minutes to prepare your thoughts before you start an essential conversation with someone – or download our free worksheet to help you get focused.

Figure out what you want

There is no one way to resolve a situation of betrayal. Here are some things to consider:

  • This is the time to have your say. State the impact of these actions on you, your team, or the company as applicable. You can be candid about your hurt, disappointment or anger and still remain professional.
  • When you speak up after a betrayal, you’re holding the other person (or people) accountable for their actions. This helps to clear the air and allow you to move toward finding solutions – or in dire situations, consequences like dismissal or corrective action. It also might help prevent this situation from recurring.
  • Focus on problem-solving rather than blame.

Be clear about what you want. This might be, for example, something like:

“I’d like a shot at drafting our next product pitch. What could I do to be considered?”

“It will be hard for me to trust you with confidential information. It’s going to take work to rebuild that.  I’m willing to try next time I’ll be very clear when something is not to be shared with anyone.”

Rebuild trust or create distance?

It’s always good to reflect on your role in the situation but can be hard not to blame yourself when you’ve been betrayed. Try to leave the what-ifs and I should-haves out of your inner dialogue and take situations like these as learning opportunities. As you reflect, consider:

  • What did you miss?
  • Did you ignore warning signs?
  • What might you have done to lessen the chance of this happening?
  • Did the person intentionally betray you? Did they offer an effective apology?
  • How could I have responded differently?
  • What can I do now that I know about this?

Try to learn lessons from the situation and determine how to protect yourself in the future. Remember that the betrayal says less about you than it does about the person who broke your trust. And, your response to it is a reflection of you, not them.

Some work relationships are worth salvaging, though rebuilding trust may take some time. Some work to build a more cohesive team can help if the situation was based on a misunderstanding, poor communication or insecurity.

If the breach of trust is great, and discipline or HR policies don’t result in the betrayer being fired, you may still have to work together. Be professional, but exercise caution when you interact with someone who has been purposefully malicious or untrustworthy. Try not to speak with them without a third party present, communicate in writing so there is a record of who said what and quietly document interactions. It’s possible that you might want to ask that you work with another team or department going forward.

Whatever you do, don’t engage in gossip or backstabbing. Cultivating strong work relationships takes time and energy, and sometimes even professional workshops to help build a stronger team. Remember that you don’t have to like someone to work with them effectively. And you can put your energy toward those team members who do have your back!

Coach’s Questions

What can you do differently when faced with a workplace betrayal? How can you support a team member who feels betrayed? What can help to rebuild trust?

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