Overcoming employee betrayal

How to overcome employee betrayal: 5 steps to love resiliently

Posted in Employee issues
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One does not need to be in practice long to discover a need to overcome employee betrayal and recover from injuries. Unfortunately, every practice owner accumulates stories of hurt and betrayal. And those scars often turn the job into a chore. Sadly, for some, avoiding the pain of betrayal becomes a life mission, a posture that limits one’s effectiveness as a leader.

Elsewhere I have advocated that our proper posture toward employees ought to be to love resiliently. (How to improve workplace culture: Love our people.) Here I want to address how challenging that is. 

My goal is to discuss how and why we feel hurt by employees and how to overcome the sense of betrayal. Additionally, I hope to show us how to avoid becoming cynical and distant from other employees. 

Connection always brings hurt

All people discover that caring for another inevitably includes moments of disappointment and hurt. One of the immutable laws of relationships is this: one cannot form attachments to others without opening oneself to injury. And as much as we crave pain-free love, finding such a relationship is rare. Offense, harm, hurt, and even betrayal seem frequent companions to love. 

Most of the time the injuries happen without intention. This truth raises a challenging question–if we do not want to hurt each other, why does injury happen

Short answer–with attachment come expectations, some of them unrealistic. That is to say, we pile on some largely unexpressed expectations and then become disappointed they are not met.

Dangerous projections

In addition to the dangers of attachment and the expectations that come along is the risk of projecting. We never approach a new attachment with a clean slate. Our history always informs our reactions in the current relationship. 

For example, every relational event might trigger the memory of past incidents. And frequently, if that incident was negative, that past injury’s energy contaminates the current experience. We cannot help but see today through the lens of our relational past.

So then, when we consider the employment context, we all come to our place in the employment hierarchy with a history with authority. That history is a minefield for both employer and employee. Both bring the energy of past relational incidents into the current employment context. And it gets complicated very quickly. 

Employee projections

First, employees worry that employers will treat them as other authorities have in the past. Parents, other employers, or some other authority figures may have inflicted injuries. When that has happened, even the remotest similarity with the past will activate lots of energy. Confusion and intensity are frequent results. 

I once had an employee who insisted on complete disclosure of all financial information. The employee wanted to be sure they were not being taken advantage of by the organization or me. To the employee’s credit, we were able over months to talk through the fears and worries. In this case, the concerns about betrayal did not end our relationship. Instead, we were able to use the discussions for mutual understanding and growth. 

Second, employees frequently desire acknowledgment that they are special, maybe extra special. At times, they want an exception to policies or special treatment. They may be great at advocating for themselves. But that does not mean they have mastered how to tolerate the disappointment of a “no.” 

The denial of requests can be interpreted as a betrayal by the employer, i.e., you did not do as you should. In some cases, this desire for specialness may go so far as to create a sense of entitlement and rage at limits. Moreover, for some, expressing anger is simply more comfortable than the acceptance of disappointment.

How “acting out” employees justify their actions

Assume an employee has the perceived unfairness, for example, an injury over money, or some other perceived injustice. In this situation, it is not uncommon for the employee to believe, “You did me wrong, so I can do as I like.” Somehow, the perceived injury entitles them to do as they please, releasing them from all agreements, sometimes even from ethical behavior.

This reaction is especially hurtful when you know that the perceived injury is out of error or misunderstanding. I cannot tell you how many times the so-called wound was, in my view, not my fault. However, my perception did not stop the accusation from hanging around my neck and souring our relationship. 

Another justification for acting out arises out of a belief that is hard to dislodge. Some employees believe that what the organization gives them (referrals, space, marketing, a reputation) is theirs to do as they like. These employees can only see the work they are doing to build relationships with clients and referrers. They do not appreciate what it took to find those clients and develop the systems that allow them to thrive. 

Furthermore, they rarely see the clients as the organization’s, even though the employment contract may spell that out. From their vantage point, these are their clients, and they can do with them as they please. 

These rationalizations allow an employee to justify some awful behavior. I have seen contract violations, slanderous comments to others, and even stealing branding, clients, and colleagues. But the hardest to live with are those who become competitors down the street. The disrespect and direct threat to your business especially hurt.

So how do we recover from injury and overcome employee betrayal?

1. Checking our own projections

Obviously, there are many ways that relationships can derail. So what do we do? How do we overcome betrayal? Let’s begin with looking at ourselves.

As employers, we too can have dangerous expectations that set us up for injury and a sense of betrayal. For example, we may, on some level, believe that employees will:

  • be the kind of employee you were, maybe even better
  • work in the same ways you do
  • have the same motivations and drive you do
  • be willing to sacrifice as much as you have
  • appreciate the organization for what it has given them
  • appreciate what you do and have done for them

I made this list from my list of projections. At one time or another, I heard my inner voice hope that these were true. Most of the time, they were self-delusions. 

2. Setting realistic expectations of employees

I had to face that my employees did not necessarily work the way I wanted them to. I had to learn that, for instance, each employee:

  • worked differently,
  • was motivated differently, and
  • certainly did not have the same investment or commitment to the organization as I did. They do not get paid to care that much.

Furthermore, I needed to accept that the sense of appreciation varied widely from person to person. For example, previous negative experiences in another workplace may have contributed to lots of gratitude. And at other times, that prior experience may have eroded their ability to trust the leadership. And some were just wired to only think of their self-interest. No additional motivation took hold. 

I had to learn to accept each employee and their work style. To continue to expect more was just setting myself up for disappointment and betrayal. 

3. It’s not as personal as we think

Firstly, in order to overcome employee betrayal, it is essential to realize that we perceive the other’s actions as more personal than they generally are. Others often react to one of our roles rather than to us as a person. And if we allow ourselves to personalize what is happening, our perceptions become distorted. We can quickly become hurt. 

Secondly, I tended to underestimate the significance of the power differences in employer/employee relationships. I wanted to be seen as a “regular person,” even when that was not the case. Sometimes with the same person, I was simultaneously a(n):

  • authority figure with hiring and firing authority
  • parental figure
  • administrative supervisor
  • clinical supervisor, and
  • friend

And then, on top of that, I was the actual person I was. 

For some employees, this power difference is never out of mind and colors all interactions. Others confuse an employer’s friendliness as signifying specialness or entitlement. My point is that power has effects that we may only partly be aware of. 

And thirdly, it is difficult for many to talk about all that gets overlaid on our role as leaders. Our employees are not coming to us for therapy. They are not asking us to help them sort out the various projections that may be going on. And typically, we should not be confessing our projections to our employees. Therefore, seeing what we see without the forum for discussion is frustrating and can be isolating. Elsewhere I have talked about how isolating leading is (The isolating effects of leading). 

4. The motivation for our work: Love resiliently

Given the complexity of the employee/employer relationship, is there little wonder that overcoming a sense of betrayal is part of the job? Our dilemma is this. 

As I have advocated elsewhere (How to improve workplace culture: Love our people), how do employers continue to love their employees with openness and sincerity? 

How do we love resiliently?

Likewise, how do we recover enough to take the risk of genuine engagement with our remaining employees? 

When I was hurt, parts of me wanted to lash out in revenge or punishment. I always was tempted to unleash all the influence I had to damage the other. 

I did not choose that and later was glad that I never did. Instead, do the work.

5. Doing the heavy lifting: An exercise

Whenever I am feeling hurt and attempting to overcome employee betrayal, I go to paper. My system is this:

  1. I close my eyes and go inward, trying to identify my feelings and emotions. I write them down.
  2. When relaxed, I ask these questions of myself:
    1. What is triggering my reaction?
    2. Where have I felt this feeling before?
    3. Why is this situation hitting me so hard right now?
  3. When I have stayed in that emotional space for a while, I switch to this sort of question:
    1. Does everything I have written explain the emotions, or is there more?
    2. Have I identified all the layers of my feelings that are going on?
  4. Only then am I ready to start thinking about what my best response might be:
    1. How much of my reaction is about my past, and how much is about the current situation?
    2. What should I share with the other, and what should I not share?
    3. Anything else I can do to help myself feel better?
  5. Then with a bit of time, I can move to ask these sorts of questions:
    1. Are there lessons I might take out of this situation?
    2. What are the parts of this that are my responsibility?
    3. What are the parts of this that are NOT my responsibility?
    4. How do I release the parts I am holding too tightly? What do I need to let go of?
  6. Finally, with even more time:
    1. Can I forgive myself for being less than perfect? 
    2. Can I forgive the employee for being less than perfect?

The goal: Love resiliently

Our goal here is to increase our ability to love resiliently, stay engaged, and care for our remaining relationships and as a result, to avoid becoming cynical, bitter, more protective, and detached. Overcoming employee betrayal is one of the more severe tests of who we are at our core. And while recovery from injury is no small task, the payoffs for success are enormous.

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