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It takes restraint, patience to neutralize a treacherous co-worker.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“They smile in your face, all the time they wanna take your place,” as the O’Jays once sang. Backstabbers: Every office seems to have them. As a co-worker, what can you can do about them?

Total avoidance is often impractical, and just because you’re not where they can see you doesn’t mean you won’t end up with a shiv between the shoulder blades. It’s the nature of backstabbers, after all, to act when you’re not around to defend yourself.

Backstabbing can take many forms: intentionally passing misinformation; withholding useful information; spreading damaging rumors. All have the same intent--clearing a path for the stabber to claw his or her way to the top.

Business books for those seeking win-at-any-cost tips even recommend some of these Machiavellian methods as ways to get ahead. Why? There is a widespread perception that such efforts will be rewarded by higher-ups.

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“You combine scarce resources and weak people, and you can get this reaction,” said Karen Stephenson, a professor of management at UCLA’s Anderson School. Added Stephenson, “It tends to happen in organizations with limited or no accountability, regardless of the size or type of company.”

In fact, Stephenson and a counterpart at USC’s business school both name academia--despite its high-minded reputation--as a particular stronghold of politics and backstabbing. “Where there are fewer crumbs, you often get more fighting over them,” said Laree Kiely, an associate professor of clinical business at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

When dealing with a backstabber, your only options are groveling or open trench warfare, right? Not necessarily.

Firm but polite confrontation is a better strategy if handled correctly, say some experts. It must be done calmly and privately. Kiely cautions against getting sucked into the would-be backstabber’s game, by becoming too emotional.

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For example, Company X used a computer network that allowed workers to view others’ works-in-progress, and also allowed employees to see who was viewing various files in the shared system. Seeing that a potential rival was viewing one of her files one day, “Louise” stormed down the hall and confronted “Sally.” “Can I help you, Sally?” Louise inquired, angrily and loudly.

The confrontation had the immediate effect of making Sally stop viewing Louise’s file. But the story became grist for the office gossip mill, and ended up making Louise look cranky and paranoid. After all, everyone in the office looked at other people’s files from time to time, whether they admitted it or not. “I always recommend that people take the high road; it takes two to play this game,” Kiely said. “Taking the high road pays off most of the time in the short run, and almost all of the time in the long run.”

A student of Kiely’s once came to her and asked how to handle a situation where someone was clearly out to undermine him. The student had taken a leave from his job and his employer had brought in a temporary replacement who proceeded to bad-mouth him to all who would listen. Co-workers sympathetic to their erstwhile colleague told him what was happening, at which point he went to Kiely for advice.

Kiely asked him if he had done anything to worry about. “When he told me ‘no,’ I told him, ‘Just go back and let it ride.’ ”

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About three months later, Kiely got a call from her former student. “He said: ‘You were right. They fired that guy,’ ” Kiely recalled.

Of course, to deal with the situation, Kiely’s student first had to recognize it. Though that’s generally easy to do (“Most people can see through a backstabber,” Kiely said), it helps to be aware of possible culprits. It’s also important, said Kiely and Stephenson, to have a trusted mentor inside or outside of the company to whom one can go for advice.

Here are a few tips for managing office politics:

* Be a likable person and a team player. Most people assume that they are the good guy in any situation. But are you really making an effort to reach out to and be friendly to others?

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Co-workers that you’ve been friendly to are likely to side with you and/or let you know if someone tries to undermine you.

* Don’t be naive. Being nice doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna. If you put too much trust in someone who has a personal interest in tripping you up, you’re partially to blame.

Kiely and others recommend finding a mentor outside the company to reduce the likelihood that secrets will be repeated or used against you. It’s often critical to have someone to ask for advice, but it can backfire if that person is too close to the situation.

* Take the high road. As much as you may be tempted to fight fire with fire, don’t. In most cases, it will only make you look worse.

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“There is a common perception that fighting back works,” Kiely said, “but people think mudslinging in political campaigns works too.” In fact, it makes both parties look bad.

* If all else fails, get out. This is a last resort, of course, but sometimes it’s the only solution.

That can mean moving to a more entrepreneurial pursuit or finding the rare organization that has tackled politics head-on. Stephenson stressed that a healthy atmosphere is harder to maintain in a big corporation, but it’s not impossible. A number of big companies do have internal “bureaucracy busters” charged with creating a friendlier and more productive environment. That’s not always enough, though.

“Companies have CEOs and CFOs, [but] they ought to have a CBOs--chief bureaucracy officers,” Stephenson said.

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