Band of brothers or lambs to the slaughter?

Beware of the saboteur – sometimes people are not who they seem...

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I have always been an advocate of seeking both sides of an argument or listening to all points of view before coming to a conclusion. In my early days though, I tended to allow personal biases and individual preferences to cloud my judgement and get in the way of sound reasoning – those days, however, are thankfully gone.

I recall a time, when relatively new to consulting, being part of a small team of motivated professionals – we were a ‘band of brothers’ and it felt adventurous and invigorating. A close-knit group evolved over time and it felt like we truly did have ‘each other’s back’ – protecting one other from ‘enemy gunfire’ while scrambling knee deep in mud over ‘bunker hill’ seemed inevitable given our level of mutual respect and professional bonding.

That is, however, until it slowly became increasingly apparent that there was a ‘saboteur’ in our ranks. I found it curious that valuable contributions I, and other colleagues, had made, or professional insights we had offered, were disappearing into the wilderness, never to be seen or heard of again. Not only, close associates in the team were slowly becoming listless, worn-down, and distant. To top it all, our boss would casually ‘greet’ us in the corridor with a cold stare together with a mix of frosty responses and a generous smattering of disdain. What on earth was going on!?

I decided to ask some questions in confidence and sought to backtrack through events to find a common denominator. Every person in the team, including me, who was feeling undermined and undervalued had, indeed, something in common: a specific colleague was in the habit of engaging each of us, separately and always alone, in a ‘one-way conversation’ inevitably tainted with negativity towards other people and interwoven with a morose monologue of self-pity.

This person had also confided in our boss: painting herself as a ‘workplace victim’, accusing us of stealing her ideas, and winning him over to her side. All to the severe detriment, in his eyes, of our professional reputation.

In hindsight, all the clues were there: the emotive dialogue in the kitchen when no one else was present; the snide remarks when no one else was listening; the crocodile tears when no one else was watching; the meticulous drip-feeding of personal grievances and slander towards people when no one was there to defend themselves.

How did we fall for it? A sense of misplaced trust, too much familiarity, overly-friendly banter, and an unhealthy dose of naivety all accumulated into being a prime target – lambs being groomed for the slaughter.

The leadership lesson is clear – enabling a culture to thrive where judgements are based on one-witness testimony, or the views of favourites, can be dangerous and will inevitably result in a biased opinion. The key is to embed a culture where knowing the facts from all sides by asking questions and involving all concerned is the norm. Only then can you decide what is reality, what is fiction, and the best course of action to take.

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Antony Profili is our Chartered Occupational Psychologist, culture change and leadership development specialist. With over 20 years’ experience in organisational development, primarily working in technically orientated sectors, he has a reputation for helping leaders think and behave differently. Antony has a passion for getting under the skin of organisations and their leaders to create performance orientated solutions that help leaders change the culture of their business and achieve their goals and aspirations.