The Nature of Backstabbing in Professional Settings: A Conversation with Patty Malone

By

Ian David, Amanda Mendoza, Samantha Belmudes, and Andrew Pham

The Nature of Backstabbing in Professional Settings

Although a typical day in the workforce can be long and strenuous, for many people, developing good relationships is crucial to maintaining their mental health. However, not everyone is willing to keep the peace and unfortunately, backstabbers can run rampant throughout any field and affect the wellbeing of their targets.

About Our Interviewee

Patty Malone received her PhD at the University of Texas, Austin in 2005. In 2010, she began her work as a communications speaker and trainer for the Clear Communication Institute, an organization devoted to aiding teams in resolving conflict and improving communication.         

She is also employed as an associate professor at California State University, Fullerton for the department of human communications.

We decided to interview Dr. Malone after finding great interest in the article she co-authored for her dissertation: Backstabbing in Organizations: Employees’ Perceptions of Incidents, Motives and Communicative Responses. Its contents will serve as the foundation for our primary research.

Question 1A:

In the research, it said that grad students were targeted as participants because they have more work experience. Do you believe that your results would have changed if you didn’t have any students as participants?

Dr. Malone’s starting point was working with graduate students, but she later decided to send these surveys to companies for subsequent procedures. However, using graduate students as participants was key in this case. Undergraduates in comparison don’t necessarily have as much work experience in comparison to positions higher up the professional hierarchy since most merely handled menial roles (e.g., retail and resturants) instead of occupying established careers.

(Malone & Hayes, 2021)

Question 1B:

Before you analyzed the results, what forms of backstabbing did you believe were going to be the most prominent based on your sample?

She wasn’t quite sure at the time of conducting the study if there were any particular forms of backstabbing were going to be more prevalent in workplaces. Regardless, the survey with open-ended questions heavily inspired her second study. 

The first study was a survey that incorporated open-ended questions. The second one consisted of a likert scale with questions based on answers she she received from the previous study. 

Dr. Malone was able to come up of numerous categories of backstabbing based on the information and data that was collected from the second study. These categories played a significant role in her study, as they broadened the definition and concepts of backstabbing. Although she did not focus on a specific form of backstabbing, all of the categories listed served a purpose for the entire study.

Question 2: 

Through your research, do you think gender plays a role in backstabbing and workplace aggression through the perceived motive of power struggles?

Dr. Malone does not believe that gender plays a role in backstabbing following to the results of her study. It was confirmed that the outcomes were not indiciating any considerable gender differences. Although, there is a common belief that women are more inclined to commit backstabbing than men are, but Dr. Malone’s findings prove otherwise.

The methodology of how they were backstabbing on the grounds of gender roles did not seem to hold true either. There were many various categories that emerged from it. An example of such would be the forms of how they were backstabbed, consisting of actions like lying, stealing ideas, spreading rumors, etc. 

Dr. Malone additionally examined how employees responded to the backstabbing they experienced. An example would be if they complained to the supervisor after the incident. Another response would be backstabbing the backstabber in hopes to get even with one another. These responses served great data to Dr. Malone’s research. These categories of backstabbing evolved from the methodologies of how they were backstabbed on the grounds of gender roles.

Question 3: 

Does the experience level and position of the employee, such as entry-level positions, leave the employee more vulnerable to backstabbing in the workplace In comparison to middle or intermediate positions?

Because our intended matter of primary research concentrates on instances of backstabbing between entry-level positions in particular, we needed to further explore her outcomes regarding durations of professional experience as a sample demographic. Dr. Malone divided such into: 0-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, and over 36 years of experience—additionally factoring in their specific occupations since the distances between administrative levels can vary across industries. 

Moreover, her response to this question explicitly stated that employees’ length of experience was not necessarily a variable which affected the frequency, occurrence, or manner of backstabbing. Her results contrarily indicated that the nature of backstabbing was similar across 0 to 36+ years of experience. Both active and passive forms of aggression were displayed. And, perceived motives were rooted in manners of self-projection, conflicting personalities, and pursuits of authority despite how much experience they had.

However, Malone is not absolutely certain that there is an absence of association between backstabbing and accumulated experience since her study participants skewed toward the higher tiers of the administrative totem pole. She revealed that a greater majority of her sample—by chance—occupied long-term careers near or within executive departments like chief executive officers, vice presidents, and managerial positions of that sort. 

Question 4:

 Due to this study being conducted in 2012, do you believe that remote work has reduced the amount of backstabbing found in the workplace?

When asked, Dr. Malone cited that she did not have enough information to address the question properly. Due to the study being conducted over 10 years ago, there are significant changes that have occurred regarding the workplace and how it’s viewed. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become the standard in the workplace. However, there is limited research conducted on remote work environments and the interactions among coworkers. 

Due to the limited study on remote work and its relationship regarding workplace behavior, there leaves much room for a new study to be conducted analyzing these interactions. A hypothetical study utilizing similar research methods as Dr. Malone’s backstabbing in the workplace methodologies and typologies would provide insight on how backstabbing incidents present themselves through remote work. 

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