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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

When Women Don’t Play Nice

Judith Briles was sabotaged at work — big

time — and has gone on to make a career of exploring the ways

in which workers, and particularly women workers, wreck one another’s

careers.

Briles speaks on "Zapping Sabotage and Conflict in the Workplace"

on Tuesday, October 22, at the New Jersey Women’s Conference at the

East Brunswick Hilton. Hers is the first of 22 workshops at the two-day

event, at which feminist Gloria Steinem delivers the keynote

at noon on the first day. The event, organized by the New Jersey Chamber

of Commerce, also hosts convocations of the Association of Black Women

Lawyers, New Jersey Women’s Forum, Women Entrepreneurs’ Connection,

the New Jersey Commission on the Status of Women, and the New Jersey

Association of Women Business Owners. Call 609-989-9888. Cost: $150

for day one, including the Steinem lunch; $60 for only the lunch;

$45 for the day one awards dinner; and $100 for day two.

Briles is traveling from Aurora, Colorado, home base for her writing,

consulting, and speaking business, to address the conference. A native

of California who speaks more quickly than a New Yorker and with as

much energy as a stand-up comedian, Briles hit upon her specialty

after being wiped out by her business partner. Originally a financial

planner, Briles and her partner had a sideline of investing in, upgrading,

and selling real estate for clients. While engaged in this business,

Briles’ partner embezzled $400,000 from a small hotel.

Briles left to run the hotel and salvage what money she could, enrolled

in an MBA program at Pepperdine to gain additional management acumen,

and then earned a doctorate in business administration from Nova Southeastern

University, a distance learning institution with a campus in Fort

Lauderdale. Rather than complete her dissertation on a more traditional

finance topic, Briles, with treachery still on her mind, researched

and wrote about the ways in which women sabotage each other in the

workplace.

"Woman to Woman" is the book that came out of her dissertation.

It was published in 1987 by New Horizon after being rejected by 28

other publishing houses. "I caught a lot of crap," Briles

says of the book’s reception. "Women were saying `How could you

say women undermine women?’"

In the intervening years, most doubt evaporated. Anyone still clinging

to the notion of universal sisterhood had to let go when high-profile

female saboteurs like Tonya Harding made headlines. Then, of course,

there was Linda Tripp, described by Briles as "the saboteur of

the decade."

Briles says she has interviewed tens of thousands of men and women

on sabotage in the workplace and has gone on to write a number of

books on the subject. There is "Woman to Woman 2000: Becoming

Sabotage Savvy in the New Millennium," "The Confidence Factor,"

and her latest, "Stop Stabbing Yourself in the Back: Zapping the

Enemy Within." She is on the verge of publishing "Zapping

Conflict" in the Healthcare Workplace.

Each gender undercuts co-workers, but there are differences in both

victims and methods. "Women are more inclined to target their

own gender," says Briles. "Men shaft anybody."

This being the case, woman to woman sabotage is far greater, Briles

observes, in "velvet ghettos," those professions that are

predominantly female. She gives nursing, teaching, banking, and social

work as examples.

Nothing can ruin a career more quickly than gossip, and that is the

tactic women employ most often, according to Briles. Where men tend

to be direct in criticizing a boss, co-worker, or underling, women,

says Briles, "are less inclined to confront directly." Instead,

they "go back to co-workers and grumble and complain about what

Bertha is doing to them."

Why do women do this? Why not just say what’s on their minds, and

be done with it? "I will fight to the end of the earth to say

it’s not genetic," Briles says with some heat. "It’s upbringing.

Girls learn early on that being bold and brassy gets them in deeper

do-do more rapidly."

Going undercover, women, or at least some women, resort to sabotage

to further their ambitions or merely to vent their frustrations. The

result, says Briles, can be mayhem in another’s professional life,

damage to her credibility, and destruction of her self-worth. And,

in her opinion, sabotage is on the rise, fed by the anxiety caused

by widespread downsizing and reorganization in a sour economy.

Since sabotage most often occurs in whispered conversations (sometimes

taped, as in the case of Linda Tripp/Monica Lewinsky), how can anyone

hope to avoid being a victim?

Keep those lips buttoned. Men tend to be slow to make

friends on the job, to trust co-workers with personal confidences.

"I’m on the guys’ side," declares Briles. "Women talk

too much. It’s not so smart to be open. We women trust just about

anyone. Then they betray us, and we give them another chance."

Men don’t understand this behavior, and they’re right. "It takes

a while to earn trust," Briles says. Be very careful about choosing

to confide personal information in anyone (again, think Linda Tripp),

and certainly do not do so before you have established a high degree

of trust.

Be confident. Saboteurs don’t choose victims at random,

but rather look for those who lack confidence. Work on body language,

a tone of voice, and a manner of speaking that says you know you are

good at what you do. "If you’re confident," says Briles, "you’re

a much tougher nut to crack."

Don’t play the game. If someone has stolen your idea,

messed up your project, or shifted too much of the workload in your

direction, speak up — to the person involved. Do not engage in

behind-the-scenes gossip. It makes no situation better, and poisons

the air. What’s more, those who spend their free time gossiping are

invariably found out, and earn a reputation that can sink their prospects.

Speak up for yourself, but not for the group. Goaded by

a saboteur, many a brave office worker has gone to the boss with a

group grievance, only to find the troops whistling and studying the

ceiling when the boss goes looking for confirmation. Do not speak

for the group, says Briles, and don’t write a memo on your letterhead

on their behalf.

Learn to recognize sabotage. Accept that sabotage occurs

in nearly every workplace, and then be on the look-out for signs that

you are becoming a victim.

"If anyone on your team is too helpful, it might look like

you need help," suggests Briles. The saboteur will sometimes neglect

her own work to hover around doing yours. She might also by-pass your

authority — or encourage others to do so. Or perhaps she might

encourage you to do the impossible, thereby cutting your confidence,

while setting you up for a fall.

Notice that each of these behaviors can look benign, even positive.

But, says Briles, each should, at the very least, raise your antennae

to the possibility that you are being undermined.

Anyone who falls into a trap, and is hurt by office sabotage

can take heart from Briles’ experience. Sure, she lost a lot of money,

but she learned her lesson, and moved on. In fact, she has built a

successful company on the skullduggery of her former partner. While

she also writes extensively on money management, a good part of Briles’

income now comes from writing and speaking about workplace treachery.

Come to think of it Monica Lewinsky, handbag designer and mini-celebrity,

and Nancy Kerrigan, professional figure skater and author, came out

of major sabotage situations pretty well too. Which leads to Briles’

final point: "Let it go, and move on."


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