Betrayed at Work? Here's How to Move Forward in Your Career.
Betrayal of whatever kind is acutely painful and destabilizing whenever it happens in our lives. As I started to chronicle business and professional betrayal based on my various career experiences, it turned out I could not find a distinct definition anywhere, so I offer up my own:
Professional betrayal: The unjust violation of a professional trust or confidence. To betray ethical conduct and sound business principles for one's own gain and betterment.
My more recent experiences with professional duplicity, whether they are my own or happened to others, are increasingly more dramatic and surreal than any of my earlier brushes in the corporate world. I believe the reason for this is that there are so many more social channels and online media for rumors, falsehoods, and misinformation to occur these days.
Regardless of the methods used, I discovered that I could piece together recurring threads and patterns to summarize five common hallmarks of business deception:
- It almost always results in being demoted, overlooked, or minimized professionally.
- It typically has a financial price tag to it - whether you are pushed down into a lesser role or released from employment completely.
- It is bitterly unfair and the injustice of it is clear to the majority of onlookers, yet ignored by a small but powerful minority who choose to look the other way.
- It always stems from the betrayer’s deep personal insecurities played out on the corporate stage.
- It will temporarily leave you wondering if you will ever make great decisions again in your career.
So why does professional betrayal happen so often in businesses? Why are the most successful professionals targeted by the weakest, who are allowed to seemingly "get away with it?" In our society today we see this played out publicly - Capt. Brett Crozier is the most recent standout of this ugliness.
The brutal reality is that commonplace, ordinary individuals thrive in certain bureaucracies, and what is rewarded above all else is conformity - regardless of what the executives state outwardly with regard to culture and company values. If you stand up for excellence, to some you threaten the bureaucracy for which you work, and therefore by default you have become a target.
Once a target, it is down to your ingenuity, stakeholder relationships, political savvy, and sheer strategic maneuvering to protect yourself and your team and still deliver impactful work. In my experience, I have been a target not when I was in the trenches working to unravel problems and reframe an organization to restore business confidence, but when I was actually successful at doing so and my team was on fire delivering results and - wait for it - happily growing in their roles with no attrition.
In order to overcome professional betrayal of any size or magnitude, I have discovered some critical recovery steps.
Recovery step #1: Recognize why it happened to you.
This is often a bitter pill to swallow, and I have found that this process is twofold. By listening to other observers' perspectives and unravelling your own insights, you can come to a place of recognizing why this occurred and what you did to trigger it.
Let me be very clear on this point: Usually what you did was absolutely the right thing as a leader or subject matter expert. You made the proper decision at the right time, you took the correct step that needed to be taken, and you stood up and owned your decision.
This is where the injustice of it all cuts so deep. Technically you did nothing wrong, but by doing everything right, you made others feel inadequate, insecure, self-conscious, etc. In his bestseller How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie showcases many examples of professionals doing the right thing, only to be torn down by others. He writes:
No one ever kicks a dead dog.
Recognize that to others, you were an alive, vibrant, and purposeful dog who kept running toward the right goals despite obstacles and challenges - and that did not sit well with them.
Recovery step #2: Accept who betrayed you and stop trying to make sense of their actions.
Full disclosure: I have this really annoying habit of looking for the good in everyone, or believing I can find the good in everyone if I dig hard enough for it. I go out of my way to find something about a coworker, boss, or direct report that I can feed and water during my interactions with them so we can achieve a solid partnership and deliver amazing results.
Experience has taught me to identify early on when this is not going to be possible, but the more jarring betrayals are the ones from whom I invested so much in their growth, championed their promotion, and encouraged their business brand, only to have them turn rogue.
Attempting to reason why an individual did what they did, reflecting on when it first started to show, how you could have spotted it, and what you could have done differently will keep you awake at night and consume your energy reserves during the day. Accept the truth that they did what they did, that it was their choice and their choice alone, and move onto Step #3.
Recovery step #3: Acknowledge that others could have stepped in, but chose not to.
It takes more than one individual to bring you down. Contrary to their narrative, they cannot do it all alone. As an experienced executive, I’ve witnessed firsthand where I had the opportunity to influence a deliberate attack from one individual against another, and shut down an injustice because it was false and unfounded.
It is a pivotal moment in a professional's career when you realize you are able to do for someone else what you had hoped others would have done for you. I stubbornly choose to believe that despite the human condition, truth will win out in the end, but I accept that it can take time and that many of us will get burned along the way until the inevitable finally happens and the betrayer makes a critical error and exposes themselves.
In the meantime, acknowledge no one in the business at that time was willing to step up and intervene when it came to your situation, and be very measured how you navigate around them going forward.
Recovery step #4: Decide for yourself how much longer you are willing to let their professional betrayal hold a cloud over your career.
Eleanor Rosevelt famously once said:
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I have interviewed countless professionals from all walks of life who are moving through their careers and carrying baggage from previous positions at other companies. There is a stark difference between learning from a painful betrayal and pulling from deep within to grow from it versus carrying that fear and hurt into the next role.
It is completely understandable to be reeling or devastated when a betrayal first happens, and it does take time to heal - but you need to move on and not allow your betrayer to leave a cloud over your future career.
In Stephen Covey’s remarkable book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he talks about the word "responsible." Breaking it down to two words, “response” and “able,” he illustrates how powerful a concept it is for each of us to realize that we are able to choose our responses to situations and other individuals in life.
This revelation has been a game changer for me and moved me forward faster in my recovery from toxic work experiences than I could ever have imagined.
Recovery step #5: Do not ruminate on getting revenge or securing justice.
I admit this is incredibly difficult to do, but I have learned how much more I will damage myself than I will ever feel satisfied that my vengeful thoughts could become reality.
Let us all recognize that we are human, and it is natural to have these thoughts when we have been hurt by someone else who wanted what we had or sought to unseat us. However, it is a lonely, miserable place to be locked away in angry, bitter thoughts, and you will hurt yourself far more than the professional betrayer ever could.
In fact, the absolute best thing you can do is flush out any thoughts of revenge and focus instead on moving forward with your career goals. Candidly, your ability to move ahead despite their best efforts to hold you back will be intensely infuriating to them, and so very liberating for you.
Now all that remains is for me to describe the lessons I have learned. They are simply these:
- Intended betrayal can be repurposed for good, but you have to be determined to turn the page and push forward with your vision and mission for your career. Turn the injustice into powerful personal growth.
- You never really know what is going in in people’s lives - you just think you do. To some individuals, the moment their need of you changes, so does their loyalty. If that is the case, they were never who you thought they were in the first place.
- I have accepted that if I wish to continue my career in corporate settings, I will be sold out at work again. To believe for a moment that, despite our individual learnings, we will be immune from further unprofessional attacks is nonsensical and naive. As an astute friend once observed, “That’s just not how the jungle works, Genoa,” and she is absolutely right.
- When an unethical colleague of whatever level cannot find anything wrong with you, they will literally invent something that they think others will believe and even convince themselves it is true. It is senseless, but I have seen it time after time, so be ready for it.
In closing, I want to thank those ridiculous individuals in my career who have motivated me by betraying me. Hear me out on this one.
They may have hurt me at the time by standing on my shoulders or pushing me out of a role, but every single professional injustice has opened new doors and introduced me to new people, new opportunities, and always a happier role that is more closely aligned to what I am good at.
Throughout the process, I’ve become a more insightful leader and - I trust - a more well-rounded human. To those of you reading this because you are going through a betrayal at work, I sincerely hope this article can help you get to your own place of appreciation for the journey rather than continuing to be hurt by it, but please know I didn’t get to mine without investing some hard work and effort over time.
It is not easy to do any of the recovery steps when you are hurting, but staying where your betrayer left you is not a winning premise - and if you reflect on it, that is exactly what they hoped you would do. Prove them wrong.
[Related: Moving Beyond Betrayal]
Genoa Martell considers herself a global citizen, having lived and built teams in Europe, America, and Canada. After reinventing herself three times in a career that has spanned a disastrous attempt at Nursing, a highly colorful career in Marketing, and an extremely fulfilling career in Talent Acquisition & Recruiting, she decided to start chronicling her insights for anyone who isn’t disinterested by her opinion or perspective. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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