On Weaving Spiders

How weaving spiders can destroy your career, your organization, and your strategy.


Imagine a set of dialogues that goes something like this:

Dialogue 1 – Hotel lounge at an industry conference: 

Jill (a senior manager with a well-known tight linkage to the CEO): “Hey Alex, I’ve been thinking about your career path and how I can be helpful.  We’re sitting here with time to kill… Tell me what you want to do with your life…Just among friends.”

Alex (a seasoned and high performing, but junior manager): “Jill, you know, it’s a tough one.  I love what I do today and could see my self doing this for years.  If it came to truly advancing my career, I would have a very hard time moving to another geography right now to take on a new role due to family concerns, and I certainly wouldn’t take a role that is lower than the one I have now…Just as friends, I’ll tell you that I would have to leave the company if that were the only set of options.”

Dialogue 2 – In the corporate office – 2 months later: 

Alex:  “Hey, Jill, how are things?”

Jill: “Pretty tough. Let me let you in on a secret, but you have to keep it confidential.  You know Bill, over in accounting?  He just got really upset about his lack of career options.  He used you as an example…He said he was a more senior guy than you when you both joined the company 5 years ago, and that he deserved to be advanced beyond you.  Can you believe the nerve of that guy? He’d better watch out.”

Alex:  “Really?  I’ve known him for years.  I’ll have to see what’s up.  Maybe I’ll drop by there to have a chat.”

Jill: “No way, Alex.  If anything, if you ever let him know that you know this, he’ll be even more upset. And besides, I’m telling you this in confidence…right?  Just as friends.”

Alex:  “Okay, but you know, that’s really out of character for Bill…”

Jill:  “Maybe you don’t know Bill the way I do.  Trust me.”

Dialogue 3 – On the telephone:

Alex:  “Hey, Bill…  I need to talk with you.  We’ve been friends for years and I just heard something that I can’t let come between us.

Bill: “Alex, of course.  What’s up?”

Alex:  “Bill, I just heard about your conversation with Jill. I have to apologize that I know about it, but it’s important to me that you and I are above board.  Are you really bothered by my career trajectory?  I mean, I know that you were more senior than me coming in, and I know that I have a more senior title now, but I also know that you are doing a great job and actually making more money than I am… So, I needed to know what gives….

Bill:  “What conversation with Jill?  She and I haven’t talked in more than 2 weeks.”

Alex: “She said you just talked…yesterday.”

Bill:  “Well, that would be tough as I was off yesterday for a colonoscopy.”

Alex: “And, you’ve had no conversation with Jill?”

Bill: “Not a word.  Sounds like somebody has some explaining to do…”

Dialogue 4 – The office hallway:

Jill: “Hello there, Alex,! Whew, I just got out of a meeting with Monica [the company’s CEO].  Wow there is a lot going on.”

Alex: “Jill, I have to ask you something.”

Jill: “Sure, what’s up? I’m always willing to help a friend.”

Alex: “Jill, you said that Bill was upset about me…and I had to ask him.  He said not only was he not upset, but that you hadn’t talked to him.”

Jill: “Alex, how dare you break confidence with me.  Of course he wouldn’t admit that to you.  Bill really does hate you, Alex.”

Alex: “Jill, I’ve been friends with Bill for a decade, you have to understand…”

Jill: “No, that’s not how this works…How dare you!  I trusted you!”

Jill walks away.

Dialogue 5 – The CEO’s office, 2 months later

Monica: “Alex, thanks for taking the time to meet.  We’ve been considering your career path, and I have a fantastic opportunity for you.  We have a role in Argentina championing a new change initiative. I wanted to tell you about it myself!  You can keep the same title, but it does require you to report to one of your peers. I’ve heard great things about you, your willingness to relocate, and your willingness to take a step back in the organization in order to move forward… and this is just the ticket for you!”

Alex: “Monica, I think there has been some mistake… I don’t think this is a good fit at all.”

Monica: “Oh, but this is a done deal.  We need you there. You’ve already said that this is what you want! Jill told me about your conversation…how you wanted new challenges and a faster career pace.  Besides, this is the opportunity of a lifetime.  I have to go now, but I want you to go consider it.”

Alex: “Ok…”

Dialogue 6 – On the telephone, moments later

Alex: “Hey Jill, what’s up?”

Jill: “Alex!  Did you get the word from Monica?  What a great opportunity for you!”

Alex: “Well, not really. And, I know you know why…I told you about my family constraints keeping me from taking a geographic move, and how unattractive a lateral move would be for me.”

Jill: “Hmmm, I guess you have a tough choice to make…I always hate it when people have to leave for the wrong reasons. Talk to you later…That’s Monica on the other line!”

Dialogue 7 – The CEO’s office, 2 months later

Monica:  It’s really unfortunate that we lost Alex.  I tried to give him exactly the career option that he wanted, just like you suggested.  I really liked the guy.  He could have helped us even if he had stayed in his old role!

Jill: Don’t be silly, Monica.  He had some nerve telling me he wanted to move to Latin America and would do anything to get it done then going to you and throwing the perfect opportunity back in your face.  You really don’t need such manipulative people in your midst.  Good riddance!

Monica: I guess you are right.  Thanks for having my back…

Jill: Are you kidding?  Our friendship is so important to me. Thank you for listening to me!

On disordered personalities in your workplace…

What just happened?  Who is the crazy one in the dialogues above?  And how often does this sort of thing go on in our organizations?

I’ll give you my simple answer:  Jill is a weaving spider.  They are more common than you think.

Alex was the mark, the dupe, the victim.  He was the guy who could either be extremely useful in Jill’s web of confidence or, and it happened suddenly when Jill tripped up by attempting to foment discord between Bill and Alex, he would become enemy number 1 because he was suddenly onto her.

The good news for Alex is he got out. Had it not been for his willingness to trust but verify, the revelation from Jill that Bill, his longtime friend, was upset with him might have left him feeling confused and thankful to Jill for unmasking Bill for the “bad guy” he was cast as in Jill’s game. Jill would have had another chip in the game with Alex. Only it backfired on Jill in a minor way.

Jill, instead of admitting her dishonesty when confronted by Alex, doubled down and then resorted to righteous indignation at Alex’s breach of “confidential” information.  She then went on the attack and, because she maintained a web of other “chips” in the game with many others who had not identified her tactics, particularly Monica, she engineered Alex’s exit via the “Great Opportunity.”

There are people, perhaps in your own organization, who thrive on discord.  They thrive on manipulating one person’s perception of another, and in some cases manipulating people into paranoia and instability.  There exists a set of tactics, known as gaslightingthat have been outlined in the research on mental abuse.  The term comes from a 1938 play (coincidentally titled “Gas Light”) about a husband who dispassionately manipulates his wife into believing she is mentally ill.

The tactics are in the toolkit of mental abusers the world over, even those in corporate environments. And, they are often based around manipulating another person’s sense of reality (“Bill really does hate you, Alex.”).  In an office setting, like any other, they depend entirely upon the confidence the mark has in the perpetrator.  In the case above, Alex broke Jill’s gaslighting chain by trusting his own judgment and going to Bill to have a discussion about Jill.  In fact, that single action revealed to Alex all that Jill was about.

Gaslighting is the realm of sociopaths who will manipulate, conceal, appeal to secrets, confidence, and friendship while collecting little tidbits of information (“chips” in their twisted game) that can be used for or against anyone…all while upholding an angry righteous indignation against anyone who questions their honesty or integrity.  Make no mistake, Jill has Monica duped as well, but Monica’s sense of reality is warped by Jill’s ability to keep others at bay and ensure Monica is focused on expediency (“Don’t be silly, Monica” being a great example… Jill might as well have said “Don’t think, Monica.”).

Why write about this?  Well, personalities like Jill’s are fantastic drains on organizational effectiveness. In the case above, Monica’s organization has lost a high potential talent. That is a huge piece of damage to an organization.  Bill will probably leave due to or be eliminated by Jill’s machinations soon as well. So, this is an important leadership and organizational effectiveness lesson in a few ways:

If you are Alex, Bill, or any other bystander, you need to be aware that this kind of personality exists.  When people around you appeal to your confidence for things that really ought to be handled in the open, it should make you wary.  Keep your eyes open for dishonesty and manipulation of all sorts, and challenge yourself not to be blind to it when you are not the mark.  In this case, Alex did the right thing by departing. Monica wasn’t interested in hearing his side of the story because decisions had been made.

If you are Monica, that is, a senior executive who may be being manipulated, the best way to guard against a destructively manipulative subordinate is to actually test for completeness.  Even a strong manipulator can only go so far, and usually, it’s the people deeper in the organization who know how truly dishonest an animal like Jill can be.  If you find yourself with a subordinate who more than a few times gets into “he said, she said” arguments (they will invariably call them “misunderstandings”) with others, you might feel a tinge of concern and go deeper. If you have a subordinate who never lets you out of their sight, you may have a spider near you.  Get a second opinion from someone who might tell you the truth, and be ready to hear the truth.

As a leader, you have to be prepared to hear the truth…Why do I hammer on that point?  Because, unfortunately, true manipulators like Jill are very good at creating self fulfilling prophecies that can make them seem almost clairvoyant about people.  You can bet your bottom dollar that Jill hinted to Monica that Alex was a departure risk before engineering the “Great Opportunity.” So, when Alex left, Jill looked like an expert with amazing organizational feel rather than a manipulative sociopath.  Monica, then, is likely to be blinded by her admiration for what she sees as Jill’s “sixth sense” instead of being justifiably horrified by the truth.

Manipulative, disordered personalities like Jill’s only exist in organizations because they are enabled by apathetic peers and ignorant or opportunistic superiors. The Jills of the world usually have fantastic capabilities (if Jill were not good at surreptitiously managing many people’s realities, then she wouldn’t have risen to senior management), but they foster discord in organizations and in personal lives and can and do lead to the downfall of both.

Be willing to speak up whether you are the CEO, the hapless mark, or an innocent bystander.  It’s time to turn off the gaslights in our organizations.

What do you think about this situation and leadership lesson?  Have you ever had an experience like Alex’s? How would you handle this if you were Monica?  Leave a comment…

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