The Office Hurtful Helper: Workplace Sabotage Psychology

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FRENEMIESAs a species of “frenemy”—the friend who is, nonetheless, your enemy or your enemy who is somehow also your friend, the office “hurtful helper” is in a complex class of his or her own.

The hurtful helper can take many forms, have one or more diverse agendas, strategies and tactics, and be very, very subtle when not utterly obvious and transparent.

Among the types are those “hurtpers” (to coin a more compact term) who sincerely believe they are genuinely well-intentioned, despite the damaging consequences of their “help”.

These are to be distinguished from your “tough love” true friends who, often rightly, decide that coddling, sheltering and sugar-coating are the last things that you need—even though any given hurtper may use the gospel and don the mantle of tough love to bash you and your success with their private Bible and agendas.

The key difference between the helpful “tough love” friend or colleague and the hurtper is that the latter’s “help” is not only initially hurtful, but also, in the end—if not also in intent, damaging.

A Hurtper Typology

Although the categories of hurtful helpers, their strategies and tactics I offer here are probably not, as a typology, exhaustive, I do believe they capture the main types of hurtpers, while allowing that any given hurtful helper may simultaneously or alternately fall into more than one of these, and suddenly switch when it seems advantageous:

1. The Schadenfreuder: This is the otherwise helpful colleague or “friend” who makes you feel guilty or confused about your success by not sharing your joy, e.g., by responding with the equivalent of “meh”, “whatever”, “zzzzz” or a quarter-hearted lukewarm toast—if not disappointing envy disguised as even more disappointing underrating of your success, thereby demotivating you to repeat or sustain whatever made you happy. That’s the essence and consequence of “schadenfreuede”—delight in the misery of others.

(Actually, this entire article was inspired by a friend who said she was terribly confused and disappointed by this all-too-common schadenfreuder response from colleagues and “friends”.)

It merits noting that schadenfreuder hurtpers are at their most perplexing and disappointing when they actually help you achieve the success they then downplay.

2. The Critic: This kind of hurtful helper criticizes your successes and circumstances with the intent or consequence of making you doubt them, often attempting to legitimize such harsh responses with some mantra about “objectivity”, “honesty”, exercising the right to be right, and the wisdom of not mistaking the trees, bushes and the birds in them for the bigger-picture forest.

One clear tip-off that you are dealing with a hardcore critic hurtper is that the honesty always seems to feel more like a shattering bullet than like a gentle beam of enlightening light.

3. The Arsonist: Like a fire-truck chasing arsonist, the arsonist hurtper will whisper “Fire!” in your ear in order to set your hair on fire about a non-existent or innocuous situation in order to accomplish one of two things: For you to overreact and cause yourself some sort of trouble, e.g., by aggressively confronting an office “enemy” or “hazard” identified in the hurtper’s whispered provocations, or to ingratiate himself or herself to you as a great friend and helper who “has your back” while, in effect, stabbing it.

If you have your wits or real friends about you, you may catch on quickly enough and realize that the only fire to be extinguished is the one that the arsonist hurtper started in your mind.

4. The Contrarian: If you reflect on the behavior of your real friends and trustworthy colleagues, the ones who genuinely care about you or otherwise would never intentionally do anything to sabotage you—including damage your working relationships or job performance, you will nonetheless find the “contrarian” friend, who consciously or not, always—yes, always–seems to urge some course of action diametrically opposite to the one you’re proposing or embarking on.

For example, you’re single, living alone, are not dating anyone and haven’t met any “people” in more than a year. You complain to your best friend in the office and declare that you’re giving up and getting a cat or a Sony PlayStation. Of course, being a contrarian, your friend reminds you: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Or recites “God helps those who help themselves”, “When you are alone, no one will hear you scream”, “You gotta do the numbers”, etc.

Fine. So you take your friend’s advice and switch gears, from park (with the emergency brake on, for good measure) to zoom-high and join a dating site, go out to bars, concerts, plays and parties on weekends. But still nothing happens and you meet no one promising.

You should be prepared for what your friend is going to say about all of this when you file your report, but, innocent that you are, you don’t expect your friend to pummel you with “You’re trying too hard!”, “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be!”, “Let it be!”, “Make them come to you!”, “You’re acting too desperate!”, “Haste makes waste!” or some other Ben Franklin bromide, except “He who hesitates is lost!”

The contrarian hurtper is exactly like that friend, but with this difference: The true friend adopts a contrarian devil’s advocate position because (s)he sincerely, albeit mistakenly, believes that this is what friends are for: To advise and persuade you to change your mind, no matter what you’ve proposed or decided, because anybody who “tells you what you want to hear” is a “yes-(wo)man”, not a “true” friend.

5. The Trapper: You’ve let it be known that you’ve decided to get a pet after all. Another hurpter seizes the opportunity to do something really “nice” for you and helps you out with a surprise pet (shown in the photo above) waiting for you at your desk. If the croc bears an uncanny resemblance to a a steel bear trap, that’s not a coincidence, because this hurtful helper is a trapper hurtper, eager to set a trap for you to fall into.

This fanciful illustration does make a sober point: some “helpers” (or “enablers”) will, deliberately or unwittingly, set a trap for you and your career through their “helpful” actions.

A realistic example is that of a workplace rival who will agitate you by instigating a perception of a conflict, often with a segue to it that starts with “Don’t let anyone know I’ve told you this, but..” or “Have you noticed…” One brilliantly strategized bonus (if not essential element) is that this can be pulled off under the guise of burying the hatchet between you or as a simple, friendly overture, while getting you fired.

6. The Recruiter: This is not a category of professional recruiter or HR manager. It is a “helper” who, because of miserable circumstances, wants some company (in keeping with the observation that “misery loves company”) and will therefore try to recruit it. For example, a recruiter hurtper having problems with your boss may try to convince you that you do too, or that whatever issues you have with the same boss are as serious and miserable as his or her own.

In psychoanalytic and strategic terms, this form of hurtper behavior is likely to be driven by rationalization (of the real or imagined grievances with the boss), cognitive dissonance reduction (eliminating any evidence suggesting that the problem is not just one’s own) and a Machiavellian calculation that there is “strength in numbers” (of complainants).

Apart from wasting your time and energy, making you anxious and resentful of your boss, and distracting you from more important things, this foray into misery can hurt—in the sense of damage—your career, e.g., if you decide to aggressively confront the boss on your own or as a bowling pin in a united front.

Of course, these categories of and observations about hurtpers should not make you suspicious of everyone or most colleagues and friends who are helpful. But, if you find, in any specific case, that the helper consistently creates situational or emotional distress, e.g., by getting you into trouble or by torpedoing every big decision you make, it won’t hurt …

…for you to more closely scrutinize that help.

By Michael Moffa