The Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle

Tue, Nov 30, 2021

two-faced backstabbing

I coined the "Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle" after experiencing a particularly painful personal interaction. Naming it led me to reflection and discovery and the recognition that this is a common phenomenon. I also discovered some ways to mitigate its impact. In my capacity as an executive coach and consultant, I have seen this nasty tangle snarl teams. Here's the story of its origins, its biological underpinnings, and how to not get snarled in the emotional pain this nasty tangle can inflict.

The Origins of the Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle

I grew up in a home in which emotions were off-limits. Talking directly about my feelings or heaven forbid expressing them left me feeling like a stranger in a strange land. I distinctly remember being a young child crying and saying how I felt about something and being met with stares and silence. I didn't understand the lack of response. As a naturally expressive person, I shared emotions freely and wore my heart on my sleeve. Only when I became a young adult did I realize that I had grown up in an environment in which double messages were de rigueur. Communications occurred through indirectness and secret code. It was simply not okay to express emotions.

I was fortunate to find a way out of this dilemma. As a people person, I value harmonious relationships. Although conflict is not my favorite thing, I learned not to avoid it. I took several personal development courses and discovered the power of being clear and direct, standing up for myself, and more healthy ways to deal with conflict. I also learned strategies for managing conflict in both my personal and professional life.

Recently, after expressing genuine concern and making what I thought was a common-sense suggestion, a person close to me unleashed a vicious torrent of insults. I got the impression that some awful things had been said behind my back about another person who I care about deeply and me. I was shocked and deeply hurt. This was the third time this person was verbally abusive to me, and this time a line was crossed.

This encounter jarred me back to long-forgotten feelings and emotions. The realization was visceral because I experienced a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach and recognized that this was the emotional space I had inhabited many, many years ago. Although I thought I had completely healed, the scar was still there. The "sock to my gut" lasted several days, and it took a while for me to get back to my center.

During this time, I began to wonder. How often had I been with family members, "friends," and work colleagues who smiled and were pleasant on the surface yet harbored ugly, nasty, and patently untrue thoughts and opinions? How often had they engaged in a whispered campaign and spread lies and untruths to make themselves feel good? Worse, could I have done this to others?

As I reflected on this last question, the answer was, unfortunately, an unqualified "yes." I have participated in whisper campaigns about others in work settings, with friends, and with family. I feel a sense of shame in admitting this given the ugliness of the phenomenon. Writing this post forced me to own and come to terms with how I may have hurt others. It has also compelled me to be more conscious in managing myself, my emotions, and my temptation to gossip about others. It has also prompted me to do my part in educating others.

I've seen the "Backstabbing Tangle" show up in families, in friendships, and in the workplace. I have worked with many teams that publicly state that they are Facebook friends yet go off in subgroups and gossip. I have worked in organizations where closed-door meetings happen all the time, and trash-talking others is a sport. I have worked with multiple leaders who wonder why they haven't been promoted to the next level yet have not received the straight, honest, and direct feedback that would allow them to be infinitely more effective.

Psychologists Have a Name for this Phenomenon

Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon. They call it "relational aggression" and describe it as a form of psychological bullying. It includes several behaviors designed to harm relationships or the social standing of others. Two specific behaviors that damage relationships are spreading nasty rumors and demeaning others. This was my experience and what others in the work world also experienced.

Biological Underpinnings—Status and In-group/Outgroup Social Drivers

Interestingly, newer research findings in neuroscience also provide a window into the biological underpinnings of this behavior. Researchers have identified nonconscious social drivers that either triggers a threat response or result in a reward. Threat responses result in the release of cortisol, which soars through our bodies and lasts several hours. Reward responses result in the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Two social triggers contributing to the "Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle" are our perception of where we are in the status hierarchy and whether we feel part of an in-group or out-group.

The individual who "trash talks" us behind our back to others creates an in-group and emotional connection by bad-mouthing. They also feel a sense of higher status—"I am better than this person because look how bad they are compared to me." According to Dr. Amy Banks, there is dopamine release when we feel safe and connect emotionally with others. Dopamine is a feel-good neurochemical that feels like a runner's high. So, in essence, the "Two-faced Backstabbing Tangler" is neurochemically rewarded. It feels good to malign and disparage others when you have a willing accomplice. What about the recipient?

Learning that others have been trash-talking us results in a nonconscious and immediate threat response. Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger's seminal research suggests that our reactions to social pain are akin to physical pain. Their lab experiments, replicated by others, demonstrate that feeling rejected or isolated and part of an out-group triggers the same part of the brain as when we are hurt physically. Just as it takes time to heal a broken bone, it takes time to heal a broken heart. Human beings have a tribal need to belong. When we feel "less than" or in an "out-group," our nonconscious reaction is lowered social status and rejection. We may experience this in our gut, feel our heart start racing or get sweaty palms. We shut down to protect ourselves and therefore don't think as clearly and are less able to make decisions.

How to Untangle a Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle

When we find ourselves in a "Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle," recognizing that we have been non-consciously triggered is the first step in protecting ourselves. Knowing that this biological reaction is part of our innate wiring can slow down our response and allow us to make a rational decision about how to react. After pausing to slow down our nonconscious and habitual flight or fight response, we can make a conscious choice. In my case, I provided the person a carefully crafted response along the lines of, "I feel disrespected when you speak to me like this. It is not okay (or it doesn't work for me), and I request that we treat each other respectfully." Fortunately, the bad behavior ceased for a while and then resumed.

When you Find Yourself Tempted to Be a Two-Faced Back Stabber

Depending on the family, community, or work culture in which you find yourself, it's helpful to step back and ask whether trash-talking others is the norm. If so, realize that you have a choice whether to participate or not. The second thing to note is your comfort in providing direct, objective, neutral face-to-face feedback to others. In my work as an Executive Coach with scores of leaders over the years and my work as a graduate school leadership professor, I have noticed a genuine fear among many to give feedback. It is much easier to go to a co-worker and complain about a third person than speak directly to them.

In my role as a graduate school professor at Golden Gate University, I designed a teamwork course nine years ago in which students were required to give each of their teammates feedback halfway through the term. After explaining how to give feedback, I required them to give three pieces of specific positive feedback and one piece of neutral, objective feedback. Students had to write out the feedback, submit it for feedback from the professor, and then provide the feedback face to face. Some students were able to write out the feedback beautifully. Others had challenges, especially with the one piece of constructive feedback. Many used "should" statements, e.g., "You should come prepared to our team meetings," instead of "I have observed that you come to our team meetings without having read the material. The impact is that we have to take time to explain the work to you, and that slows down our ability to complete our team assignment." What became clear to me is how the prospect of giving clear, direct feedback raised anxiety levels, making it even more challenging to articulate constructive feedback.

On the day of the feedback, students were incredibly nervous. Once they gave feedback in a neutral, objective way so that others could hear it, the tension dissipated, and there was a sense of freedom and accomplishment. Team issues that had impacted the teams usually dissolved.

My point here is that learning to be direct and timely in giving feedback is a fundamental skill and gift to others. It is also a way to avoid two-faced backstabbing behaviors.

The consequences of Not Addressing Two-Faced Backstabbing

Once ugliness is expressed, it destroys trust and makes it difficult to resume a cordial relationship. If at work, you can, of course, work around those who make a sport of bad-mouthing others. You can also decide if this is a culture within which you want to work. And most importantly, as a leader, you can clearly state your expectations for essential values, e.g., being respectful, addressing issues swiftly and directly, and what's acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior.

When the behavior occurs within a family unit, community, or friendships, it is much more difficult because of the complexity of emotional inter-connections, especially within a family system. I once had a teacher who said, "The person with the most light has to clean up the mess." This means that the one who can step back and view the situation objectively is usually best equipped to address it. The first step, as always, is to acknowledge the challenge and our role in it. The second step is to ask yourself, "Who do I want to be in this situation?" The third step is to use our best emotional intelligence skills to address the situation and set boundaries.


Sometimes you can't resolve a "Two-Faced Backstabbing Tangle," especially when the emotions generated are long-standing and deeply held. That is the case with my personal situation. It's also true in work-related ones. In these cases, we need to decide what is best for us and either leave the situation if we can and/or limit exposure to those who hurt us.


Topics: tangles

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

Marcia Ruben Ph.D, PCC, CMC

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