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Backbiting And Disengagement


During 2019, a friend of mine, Jack* worked the high season at a nearby theme park. Within the ticket box, there was a rapport, derived from experiencing nasty customers and wanting to provide a support network for the newer members of the team. Nobody wants to be overwhelmed in such a space. It isn’t fair. Support was always given when needed.


But, the job that he took, following that summer, despite having a similar scope of colleague ages, and a similar advertised company culture, was significantly different, because he was privy to the experience of gossip. He knew that it was actively taking place in his new workplace. Where in his former role, they had morning meetings to congratulate each other on a hard day’s work and the feats that were achieved during the previous day, this new job was dominated by a different experience. It was not uncommon for a member of the team to have their shift cancelled last minute due to the lack of footfall in our store. However, the means as to who was chosen to have their shift axed was unlike one he had ever seen: with the colleagues already in for the close, getting the option as to who they would rather work with. He later learned that he was also one of those colleagues, that could have their shift cut due to not measuring up to whoever else was on the close.


In hindsight, these exchanges remind me of what Glenn D Rolfsen describes as “backbiting”, derived from the idea of biting back, defined as “talking negatively about a third person who is not present”. This may be used as a coping mechanism in a toxic working environment which pits workers against one another, either directly, in a company which operates on a commission-based payment scheme or indirectly in workplaces such as retail or service where someone may simply grind another’s gears.

Working within a company which allows “backbiting” to take place would not prove to be psychologically safe for the staff. Psychological safety, was coined in 1999 by Dr Amy Edmonson, and is a term used to describe “tacit beliefs about interpersonal interaction,” amongst a team; their success will largely boiling down to whether they have “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”


In an idealised scenario, one would want to work in an environment where “backbiting” is never an issue. Wolter Smit explained that what would improve the engagement of employees within a company, was to “create an environment, a secure environment, where people can just try things out and if you make a mistake, it’s not bad, because you’re trying to get somewhere”.


Daniel Pink acknowledges that the best way to improve employee engagement at the workplace is an employee finding their-self feeling like a valued member of the team, due to autonomy at work, mastery of their craft and skills or the feeling of purpose whilst doing their job. While Chris White explored the idea of becoming disengaged at work by checking out, when you work to the bare minimum expectation, your passion being expelled.


Smit acknowledged this idea of checking out, too, in his Ted Talk, where he questioned why so many people “work shitty jobs”, and how to rectify it by “creat[ing] an environment, a secure environment, where people can just try things out and if you make a mistake, it’s not bad, because you’re trying to get somewhere”


This nature of a company and an employer is something that two of a sample of eight young people identified as part of an idealised workplace, with Participant One saying he would “appreciate someone who is forgiving of mistakes towards new employees”, and Participant Six acknowledging that she would “rather be with someone who teaches [her] how to do well and helps you grow to be a better employee.”



Based in London, U.K., and founded in 2016 by Arvind Mishra The Agile Works (www.TheAgileWorks.com), is an up-and-coming recruitment and Agile consulting company. Arvind is a Certified SAFe SPC and regularly delivers both private and public SAFe certification workshops.

He is a design thinking expert, Sr. enterprise, portfolio Agile Coach with over a decade of experience working as an Agile coach in diverse industries such as banking, pharma, retail, auto, oil, gas, consulting and government.

The Agile Works; a small team of three strive to help shape the leadership's mind-set and values in readiness for their business transformation journey challenges. With Arvind at the helm, we strive to provide you with the agility tools to make your company that can thrive, and not just survive.

To book a consultation, or for any enquiries, you can contact Arvind via the following email address: arvind@theagileworks.com


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