Updated: Feb 18, 2019
This series of articles explores the toxic behavior profiles that persistently generate workplace conflict and provides tips on how to respond.
Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.
Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.
Thankfully, most of the behavior that generates toxic conflict is common and predictable. This means that you can plan ahead for behaviors that are certain to recur.
Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.
Code Name: The Brutus
Favorite Song: Backstabbers - by the O’Jays
Favorite Movie: The Ides of March (R.I.P. Philip Seymour Hoffman)
Behavior: The O’Jays said it all in their super-smooth 70’s hit Backstabbers, “They smile in your face… All the time they want to take your place.” If Julius Caesar had only watched more Soul Train…
Whether the Brutus wants to take your woman, your man, your corner office, or the last cruller in the break room – their behavior will always revolve around one simple principle. They use intimacy and trust as a weapon.
The workplace Brutus is very difficult to handle because we don’t want to believe that they exist. After all, most of us greatly value trust, loyalty, and friendship. The thought of weaponizing those basic building blocks of human relationships is inherently repellent.
We have all violated someone’s trust at some point in our lives. But the idea that there are those who do so habitually, purposely and with strategic forethought – is a hard reality to accept.
Most people’s first response when they suspect someone is a Brutus is to explain away the behavior as a misunderstanding or even self-induced paranoia. The Brutus knows this and will often double-down on their deception by playing on your feelings of guilt for even suspecting them in the first place.
The Brutus will say things like:
“It’s all a misunderstanding.”
“How could you even think such a thing?”
“I would never do something like that to you…”
The Brutus is not simply ambitious. Highly ambitious people might, rightly or wrongly, throw a few elbows now and then to get ahead. The Brutus is different.
The Brutus is motivated by both ambition and an extreme and toxic form of covetousness. They don’t just want to get ahead or achieve something. They want what you have. In fact, the Brutus is convinced that they should have what you have.
This person usually has a strong and compelling narrative in their head. In this internal story, they are not a villain. Instead, they are actually the hero. They might believe they’ve been wronged, passed-over, or unrecognized. Perhaps they feel more competent, smarter, or harder working than others who have greater status or prestige in the organization.
The Brutus broods… Why should you have that position, that promotion, that kind of attention and praise from the boss? After all, your success is really due to something the Brutus has provided that has gone unrecognized. In this narrative, the Brutus is justified in taking these things from you. In fact, justice demands that they do so. They are not betraying you. They are setting things aright.
It is this inverted hero-narrative that motivates the Brutus and provides them with a justification for lies and betrayal.
Interestingly, this is precisely the mix of characteristics that intelligence operatives look for in potential turncoats and defectors. Check out this CIA brief on the psychology of treason. It explains why people sell secrets to terrorists and why Greg stole my Star Wars action figures in 4th grade. (You know what you did, Greg.)
If you are going to convince someone to betray their country, comrades, and family – you need to help them not despise themselves for it. An intelligence handler will encourage the person to tell themselves a story in which they are the hero and all of their problems in life come from others, not from within. Unlike those motivated by greed, the Brutus will often do this kind of espionage work for free. It is the internal story that drives them.
Tragically, these motivators and personality characteristics also tend to doom the Brutus’ plans from the beginning. They might experience some temporary successes, but it is precisely these personality flaws that impaired the Brutus’ ability to advance in the first place.
The mundane workplace Brutus, tends to find themselves again and again in the same toxic and destructive patterns – never quite achieving the object, status, recognition or vindication they want. They consistently fail in their attempts to solve internal problems with external solutions.
Even if they do achieve a position of leadership, the reign of a Brutus is typically unstable and short. Eventually, they learn what successful people already know. You cannot truly rise by cutting other people down.
Do Not: The only way to never be hurt by a Brutus, is to mistrust everyone. That will do more damage to your life than anything a Brutus could ever do to you.
Accept that someone with whom you are very close will betray you at some point. Most of us already have such a story in our lives. Do not stop believing or trusting in others. Don’t fall prey to paranoia or start thinking, like a mob boss, that every subordinate is a potential threat.
Most people, though flawed, are not a Brutus. When most people betray a confidence, or do something selfish for their own gain, it is impulsive and situational – not strategic and habitual.
Do: That being said, you need to know the signs that someone might be a Brutus and what you can do if someone is betraying your trust in the workplace.
First, consider this simple rule-of-thumb from the greatest espionage author of all time (ok, besides maybe John le Carré), Ian Fleming. Call it Fleming's Law. Sir Ian said:
Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action. - Ian Fleming
As discussed above, betrayal by a Brutus is systematic. It will take place more than once, in different ways, and over time. When that happens, you need to take notice, take action, and confront the Brutus.
When you do confront a Brutus, focus on cold facts and not unprovable allegations. Facts are your friend and will keep you sane when the Brutus doubles down on their deception.
The Brutus will evade and try to explain away their behavior. They will attempt to make you question your own perception of events. They will offer an alternate false narrative that is sprinkled with just enough truth to make it plausible. They will try to make you feel like you are taking crazy pills.
In response, you need to be steady and resolute. You should sound something like this, “No. This is not a misunderstanding. You told me one thing. You told Sally another thing. And then you lied about it – just now. You have done this repeatedly.”
It helps to have other supporters with you who can back you up and support you during these conversations. The Brutus is an expert manipulator and will attempt split any group that confronts them. Talk about this with your supporters before the conversation. Ensure that you all share the same perception of events and goals for the conversation.
If you discover that a potential supporter sees things differently, hear them out. But do not have them in the room when you confront the Brutus. Otherwise, the Brutus will use that person’s doubts against you.
This scene from the movie, Ides of March, is a great example. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character uses simple facts, persistence and a pithy story to completely dismantle the betrayal perpetrated by Ryan Gosling’s character. He is not distracted by Gosling’s character’s attempts at evasion. Hoffman’s character states, and restates, the truth several times with increasing force and finality.
In short, when dealing with a Brutus…
Trust Fleming's Law. Focus on the facts. Gather supporters. Do not be distracted by evasion. State the truth with force and confidence.
As Mr. Hoffman says in the clip above, “No Stephen. You didn’t make a mistake. You made a choice.” Boom! Truth bomb. Study Philip Seymour Hoffman. Become one with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Be Philip Seymour Hoffman from that scene the next time you confront a Brutus.
Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.
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