Workplaces are unfortunately often full of troublemakers who are only too happy to smear others, attempting to damage their credibility and reputation to others. But how exactly do smear campaigns work? How do these cunning workplace manipulators seem to get away with it so often and so easily?
There are actually a few different ways that smear campaigns can play out. Troublemakers can use a combination of open slander, provocation or the spreading of false narratives to gradually undermine the reputation of their target in the eyes of colleagues and managers in a workplace.
However, all smear campaigns have one thing in common – they are an attempt to negatively manipulate and influence the perception of others regarding a certain target. However, some toxic workplace troublemakers are more clever and sneaky about it than others, so we’ll cover the more obvious, but also the more subtle ways in which troublemakers can engage in smearing others in a workplace setting.
Type #1 – The Straightforward Slander Smear Campaign
This is what the more brazen workplace psychopath/troublemaker engages in, especially when they are surrounded by other poor quality, apathetic, easily influenced people who they know they can easily manipulate. Sometimes they’ll just openly smear and bad-mouth you to others, especially colleagues.
Here are some ways they might do this:
- Openly bad-mouthing and disrespecting you, either to your face or behind your back
- Spreading false lies and malicious gossip about you to others about your personality, work, personal life or anything else.
- Telling things that you told them in confidence to others (be careful who you trust in workplaces)
To be fair, this open and obvious type of smear campaign is a bit clumsy and risky, since it can always backfire if the information gets back to you.
However, some toxic employees, especially psychopaths, will still be open and brazen about it, for several possible reasons:
- They are just a brazen and outrageous person, who doesn’t care about consequences and is happy to try and deny and gas-light their way out of anything. They might be fully “in” with upper management and think they are untouchable.
- The workplace is full of poor quality people who won’t object to the smear campaign or defend the victim and will in fact be happy to join in with it. Therefore the troublemaker knows they can be brazen and open about it, because they have a whole bunch of “useful idiots” they know they can easily co-opt into their smear campaign.
- They can see the victim has a codependent, weak boundaried personality style, and therefore will struggle to stand up for themselves.
- A combination of the above factors.
It goes without saying that if you’re in the type of environment described above, it’s almost always not worth fighting it – seek to move on to a better company with a better culture.
Type #2 – The Provocation Smear Campaign
If open slander and smearing doesn’t quite work for the workplace troublemaker, then they have to resort to something a little sneakier – they have to create the image of having a justifiable reason for their smearing of you.
They do this by deliberately provoking reactions in the target, which they then use against them as fuel for the smear campaign.
Here is a very common sequence through which this plays out, adapted from Jackson Mackenzie’s latest book on toxic abuse:
- A disordered individual (psychopath/sociopath/narcissist) provokes you.
- You deal with the issue calmly, thinking the conflict is resolved.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, many, many times.
- Eventually, you react less calmly, sick of the provocations.
- The disordered individual victimizes themselves from your reaction: “Oh wow, you’re so crazy/sensitive/impatient/cranky/moody/difficult/awkward)!”
- They also go sneaking around to others in the workplace gossiping about your provoked reaction, trying to paint out to others (including middle and senior management) that you are “going crazy” or some other smear. They try to gradually erode your reputation among colleagues and management in the workplace.
Here’s a good summary quote on this:
“It’s called the smear campaign and it started even before your breakup or the blowup in a work situation…What they’re doing is provoking reactions from you and then sneaking around the sharing those reactions with people to slowly show this person is going “crazy”….
That smear campaign is about turning people against you, even your own friends, so you have no support after it’s done”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here
This type of smear campaign is especially common if the people you’re working with (and especially under) cross over into not just being somewhat toxic people, but having full blown personality disorders (sociopathy/psychopathy/narcissism – the Cluster B disorders).
You must practice remaining calm in the face of provocation from others. You will encounter this regularly in toxic workplaces, and you must avoid over-reacting to keep the upper hand.
The key reason for this is that provocation is often the first step of a broader smear campaign that disordered people engage in which follows the pattern laid out above. They are creating the fuel for the smear campaign from your reaction to their behavior, even if this reaction is in a sense justified.
This is why you must a) remain calm in the face of attempts to provoke you, and b) look to get out of these environments as soon as possible if you’re seeing it happen more and more, and also where you see people being turned against you by the troublemaker’s scheming.
Type #3 – The Set Up Smear Campaign
This is a more subtle still form of a smear campaign, and involves a toxic form of “planting seeds” psychologically – setting up false and misleading narratives to manipulate the perception of others and set the stage for a blowup to occur in which the target is unfairly blamed for something that wasn’t their fault.
In other words, the troublemaker will put ideas into the heads of others about their target (partially true or completely false and made up) for weeks or months, and then pounce on certain events that happen as “proof” of the smear campaign they initially started.
Here are a couple of examples of this:
- The troublemaker spread false narratives about a worker, such as “they’re difficult”, “they’re moody”, “they don’t handle customers well” or something else. It might be partially true in a small way, but it also might be completely false and made up, especially with psychopaths. They just invent a “hook” and keep hammering away at it.
- The troublemaker keeps hammering on this false or mostly false narrative, spreading it to as many different people as possible. They are putting the idea in people’s head, and might spend weeks or months doing this.
- They will especially try to put this idea into the heads of higher up managers, manipulating their perception of you to the extent that if something blows up, they’ll immediately seek to blame you, regardless of actual facts in that situation.
- Eventually, a situation may blow up which could be seen to “prove” the smear campaign. You might have a (legitimate) argument with a colleague where you’re standing up for yourself. A customer might (unfairly) attack you.
- You reach out for help or support to a colleague or line manager, and they respond unsympathetically, blaming you for the problem, and perhaps at this point revealing the “feedback” they’ve been getting about you means that this situation doesn’t surprise them. You get unfairly blamed and pathologized for the situation, even if the objective facts dictate that it actually isn’t your fault in this situation.
- It will often seem that facts have become irrelevant in the situation, and instead, your smeared reputation in the eyes of others is what is dominating how people see you.
- It is at this point that it becomes apparent that a smear campaign has been run on you over weeks and months prior, building up a false narrative that has set the stage for this unfair treatment to happen. That’s why I call it the “set up” smear campaign – the psychopath or other troublemaker is setting you up to fail by planting ideas in the minds of colleagues and management a long time in advance.
- A worker may feel so unsupported and unfairly treated in the situation, that they feel their position has been made untenable and resign. Their reputation and credibility has been damaged beyond repair in the company. They often don’t put the pieces together about what was happening behind the scenes with the smear campaign until a long time afterwards.
“Psychopaths smear their accuser/target.
If that’s you, they ruin your credibility, often starting the smear campaign long before you even realize what they’ve done to you. When everything blows up, you have no support.”
The entire undertone of this type of smear campaign (as with all of them) is to manipulate and distort the perceptions of others about the target, to the point where actual facts regarding situations with them become irrelevant, and their (falsely created) bad reputation is what becomes more important in how they are seen, judged and left unsupported in difficult situations that arise.
Any time where the content or facts of what happened in a situation don’t seem to matter anymore, and it feels like management have made their minds up already that you are the problem or to blame in a situation, even if you’re not, then it’s very possible that a smear campaign has been run on you in the preceding weeks and months. The unsympathetic reaction you are getting has been generated by the smear campaign the psychopath/troublemaker has run on you influencing the way others see you and the situation.
It’s like the troublemaker gets to rub their hands and say “see! Look what’s happened now! I told you blah blah blah about ….”. Even if in that situation, you are most definitely NOT to blame and have been unfairly treated by a colleague/customer etc. Psychopaths are experts at relentlessly drumming up smear campaigns in this way. Even if in one particular occasion, it doesn’t lead to a full-on blowup and confrontation, they still keep fueling the fire in any way they can and sneak around gossiping about it as “one more incident” to prove their narrative.
Manipulative people know that these sorts of things, like falsely created bad reputations and attacks on credibility, can take on a life of their own if they hammer away at them long enough and to enough people, regardless of whether they are true or not. If smear campaigns are left to escalate, then victims can be put in a horrible position where they feel literally everything they say and do becomes “confirmation” in the eyes of others about the false narratives being spread about them.
They can also become paranoid and insecure about their performance and how they are seen, and start to feel “on edge” all the time, that something bad is going to happen. And it’s very commonly observed in psychology that if you’re paranoid about something, you’ll find a way to make it happen.
That’s why it is important to pay attention to your gut instinct when you can sense people are being turned against you in a workplace; where you can feel false narratives about you are starting to snowball and take on a life of their own, where you feel that no matter what you do or say, it’s interpreted negatively, even though you know you are a well intentioned, conscientious worker.
If you see these toxic smear patterns escalating to the extent that facts are seeming to become irrelevant, and you are being unfairly scapegoated and blamed for things that aren’t your fault, it’s time to move on. Usually, if these things are even happening in a company, then it’s not a good company to stay in, which is what we’ll get to in the next section.
Avoiding & Handling Workplace Smear Campaigns
To understand how best to avoid smear campaigns, it’s firstly important to evaluate the culture of the company you are in.
If workplace troublemakers and smear campaigns are more an isolated, one off, rare occurrence, and the management and culture of a company are generally good, then it’s easier to fight these things. Here are some pointers:
- Thoroughly document all instances of malicious gossip and lies being spread about you that get back to you.
- Report concerns to HR and middle and upper management, if supportive and receptive.
- Shut down any false narratives spread about you right away, both to the troublemaker and to others they gossip to.
- Ask for transfers to new projects or departments if a particular person seems to be engaging in this behavior and you’d rather not be around them.
- If you have weak boundaries, you must develop an ability to stand up for yourself. Work through any boundary, self esteem and codependence issues with a skilled therapist if necessary.
However, if the culture of the company is more toxic, and the workforce of much poorer quality overall, then it’s more problematic, because smear campaigns are easier to conduct in these environments. If colleagues and management have less integrity and are easier for troublemakers to manipulate (“useful idiots”), then you’ve got more of a problem. These are usually the types of workplaces that smear campaigns are more common in.
Here are some things to watch out for, from my experience:
- Watch out for toxic companies with a high concentration of toxic, manipulative, scheming personality traits, where gossip and back-biting is common
- Watch out for all forms of lying and deception, but especially “lying by omission” – the withholding of pertinent facts or information that unduly manipulates the perception of others and cause them to perceive a person or situation radically differently than if they had the full information”. In words, manipulation by what is NOT said, what is left out, rather than what is said. A very sneaky form of deception and often used to drum up smear campaigns against targets.
- Watch out for poor quality mid/high level management – this can be more obviously weak people, but also young, undeveloped but highly egotistical mid level managers, who because of their oversized ego, tend to be very easily manipulated and controlled by lower level schemers. A common dynamic that allows smear campaigns to play out, as manipulative players often have this manager’s ear, or have them “wrapped around their little finger”, is another common way it’s expressed. They can very easily turn management against someone they want to target.
- Look instead for appropriate integrity and boundaries maintained by management with lower level managers and supervisors. No sense of “cronyism” or nepotism or of political players unduly influencing and controlling people above them. This allows them to set up smear campaigns more easily.
- Don’t fight toxic work cultures – just leave workplaces were you see these toxic patterns of manipulation and unprofessional boundaries playing out and move onto somewhere better. Trying to speak out against a toxic culture only makes it more likely that you’ll be the target of any smear campaigns, as the toxic players all turn on you. Be more proactive and intentional and move on to better things.
- Similarly, don’t get into futile battles where you find yourself desperately trying to act in a way that “proves” the smear campaign “wrong” to others around you – a smear campaign that will almost always be false anyway. This means you are totally under the control of abusers, and your self esteem will continue to be eroded from there. Don’t fight against things that almost always aren’t true anyway – move on to better companies and cultures.
Even if we don’t have hard facts that something is going on, we all still have a “spidy-sense” that something isn’t right in a toxic workplace; that things are being said behind our back, that false narratives are being planted, that people are not seeing you objectively. Pay attention to this gut feeling and move on from companies with a poor overall quality of staff and easily manipulated management, before smear campaigns against you can develop and escalate.