Leadership and Betrayal

As an executive and leadership coach, I am frequently told about nurses’ experiences at the helm. Sometimes these are inspired tales of persistence and triumph, often in the face of profound adversity.

But sometimes these leaders’ stories reveal vulnerability, deep wounds, and major defeats. Although a single word can’t do justice to their feelings, a few reflect their spirit: disappointment, duplicity, disloyalty, and even heartbreak.

I do not offer these descriptions lightly. Look around you. Look inside you. It is highly likely that you and I and most of us have faced at least one betrayal at work. In fact, trust experts Drs. Dennis and Michelle Reina report that betrayal is universal and that 90% of employees experience betrayal frequently in the workplace.1

According to Merriam-Webster, to “betray” means to be led astray, to deliver to an enemy, and to fail or desert, especially in times of need.2 In nursing leadership, betrayal can take many forms, including situations like these:

  • “After years of nurturing solid relationships with my peers and superiors, my boss told me I will be reporting to someone I do not respect. I was not asked for my opinion before this change was broadly announced.”
  • “As a leader nearing the end of my career, I agreed to put my life’s work in another’s hands. I believed what I was told—that the work I constructed would continue. I have since learned that my work has been changed so radically that it no longer resembles what I created.”
  • “Without giving me a chance to advise my staff, my boss went around me and contacted my team members to seek opinions
    about my leadership.”
  • “No matter how much I listen, or how hard I try to understand and deliver what is expected, I cannot seem to provide my supervisor what she needs. I feel that I am being forced to leave.”

Our responses can take many forms, too:

  • Sometimes a leader dons a mask and creates a well-honed story that allows him to save face as he appears to move on. But when
    that same leader has a chance, he shares stories and feelings that tell a different story. We discover that he has not processed or come to terms with what occurred. Instead, he harbors bitterness and resentment.
  • Some leaders are indignant. “How could this have happened to me? I’ve always had excellent performance evaluations, I have a lot of feedback about the quality of my leadership, and I have led my part of this organization in very challenging circumstances. I have done everything I could. I simply don’t understand.”
  • Some leaders form a sub-rosa plan to achieve fairness and reciprocity. Said another way, they launch a thinly disguised effort to get even.
  • Some leaders believe that their most important professional relationships are no longer trustworthy. As a result, they question their own judgment, the other party’s character, or both.
  • Some leaders question their competence. They thought they were good leaders, perhaps even great leaders. They have lots of evidence to prove it, but their confidence is deeply shaken. They wonder what happened. How could they have made such a significant miscalculation?

Merriam-Webster says trust is assured reliance on character, strength, ability or the truth of someone or something. We place our confidence in those we trust.3 Notice that in each of the earlier examples, there is a universal theme: trust has been broken.

So, what are we to make of broken trust and betrayal? If we consider our own experiences, we may ask many questions. If we stay long enough, are we bound to be betrayed? Is broken trust inevitable? Is it a consequence of being part of a diverse workforce that doesn’t always share our values? Does betrayal increase in stressful times? Is it human nature to embrace the status quo and to feel betrayed when circumstances change?

If betrayal is so ubiquitous, what are we to do when it occurs?

  1. We can consider whether the betrayal was intentional. Drs. Reina have found that “90 to 95 percent of the betrayals that cause problems at work are just the little in ways we let people down.”4
  2. We can consider the magnitude of the betrayal, acknowledge our emotions, and clarify what the betrayal really was. We can also thoughtfully identify the betrayer. Was it our boss, our coworker, or someone else? Or, was it truly impersonal? Was it a position that the organization took that upset us?
  3. When betrayal happens at the hand of other people, we can ask ourselves whether we contributed to it. Did we unwittingly aid and abet the betrayer? Maybe we didn’t do our due diligence before making an agreement. Perhaps our emotions got ahead of the evidence, and we ignored signs that a betrayal was coming. Perhaps we were distracted. Perhaps we didn’t attend to those whose legitimate organizational needs were not being met.
  4. Was the betrayal something that happened inside ourselves? Did we abandon our own intentions and values? Were we not clear about what we needed, wanted, or believed? Were we silent when we should have spoken?

After we have acknowledged our own feelings, and we have learned from the experience, we are more prepared to move on. Moving on can include forgiving others and being merciful with ourselves.

If a betrayal happened to us, we can offer ourselves the gift of reflection, grieving the loss and gaining wisdom from the experience. Yes, it can be very tempting to react, bury the pain, and move on, but if we do this, we miss the opportunity to learn and truly heal.


  1. Reina D, Reina M. Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler; 2010.
  2. Betray. Merriam-Webster website.
  3. Trust. Merriam-Webster website.
  4. Wegel J. Rebuilding trust at work. ChicagoTribune. April 22, 2011. Accessed April 27, 2015.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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