A 2012 Resolution: Keep Your Enemies Close

“All’s Fair in Love and War”

“Good news!” is what she said to me on the phone. She timed it while I was traveling, so it would be harder for me to react to what I saw as yet another attempt at professional sabotage. Over the years, I had become very suspicious of her because of “honest mistakes” that either hurt me politically, helped her, or both. This one made it crystal clear. There was no chance this one was a “mistake.”

We’ll call her “Nicole.” Roughly 3 months before, our department had reorganized and our GM decided that Nicole’s favorite direct report (who we’ll call “Martin”) was going to be moved onto my team. Nicole had hired Martin originally, and groomed him for over a year. They had the highest level of respect and loyalty for each other.

Meanwhile, I had just extended an offer to a very promising young candidate. The “good news,” according to Nicole, was that she had suggested to Martin that the new employee joining my team should report to him (effectively promoting him to Manager), and that Martin was very excited about the plan.

Nicole’s tone was enthusiastic and friendly on the surface. But she knew that the position she had put me in would be damaging. I could either go along with the plan, in which case Martin would get an effective promotion orchestrated by Nicole, or I could undo the plan, in which case Martin would perceive me astaking away a deserved promotion. Either way, Martin would end up being even more loyal to Nicole (with the promotion) or would be demotivated in his new role (as an individual contributor) because I blocked his promotion. Checkmate.

This was a huge professional “wake up call” for me – that there were actually people who would set traps to undermine other employees for their own benefit. Because I was responsible for outbound product marketing and Nicole ran inbound product management, avoiding her was not an option. I came to the realization that I was now at the stage of my career where I had to “grow up” or be crushed by the “big boys” (and girls). I had to find a way to work with Nicole.

Beware of Your Enemy

Inevitably, everyone in high-tech encounters professional enemies i.e. adversaries that undermine your professional reputation, conflict with your value system, and sound your internal alarm for “fair play” and “justice.”

As common as personality conflicts are in the workplace, they are the toughest problems to solve because you’d simply prefer not to deal with thosetypes of people on any level whether professional or social. Socially, you can control who you interact with. However, broken professional relationships can be cancerous to your career success:

  • Wasted Time and Energy – it takes a lot of energy to dislike someone. This negative energy is wasted in matters that are counter-productive to the business. It also takes away from your job satisfaction.
  • Lost Productivity – avoiding someone who is on your team or who is part of your natural workstream makes for inefficient work.
  • Stalled Career Advancement and Promotions – it’s easier for your manager to promote youif she knows that there is consistent support throughout the organization. Adversaries can do a lot of damage to your reputation and make it hard for your manager or others to support your promotion.

On the other hand, if you’re able to work through these differences, you can do a lot of good for yourself in building up key skills as well as your reputation. Managed properly, people will recognize you as:

  • A Team Player - Companies spend millions on “teamwork.” At Oracle in the mid-90s, Ray Lane was adamant in rallying every employee in every function to focus all energies on beating Microsoft instead of fighting each other. If you can be a role model for “teamwork” and create highly functional cross-organization teams, you will significantly increase your chances of getting more responsibility and rising up the ranks.
  • A Leader - Leaders work through differences and come up with solutions. Anyone can point out problems. Great leaders always find a way to work with all types of people and to motivate them to a common cause.
  • Politically Savvy - You simply can’t avoid “Politics,” because “Politics” still exist everywhere and won’t avoid you. Playing good politics is required and it doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values. True North by Bill George provides a great foundation for understanding how your personal values align to your professional goals. People will respect you as someone who understands the game, but doesn’t “play dirty.”

“Keep Your Friends Close. Keep Your Enemies Closer!”

By the time HR gets involved, it’s usually a lose-lose situation or at best win-lose i.e. someone will lose. While it’s improbable that you’ll get along equally well with every person in your workplace, it’s also impractical to think that you can turn all adversarial relationships around. Take the first step to improve a bad situation. It’s to your benefit (as the old saying goes) to “…keep your enemies closer.” Here’s how:

  1. Be the bigger person - If you lower yourself to internal infighting, people above, across, and below you will notice. And even if you “defeat” your enemy, people will be hesitant to build strong relationships with you because they don’t want to become your future “victim.” Resist innate behaviors to defend and attack by controlling or better yet disconnecting your emotions. Some of my greatest professional missteps were caused by inability to control my emotional response and reactions.
  2. Stay in frequent, close contact – this gives you an “early warning system” so you can look out for their tactics. Find things in common to talk about. Look for “windows of opportunity” to make small talk. Then build up to non-work related topics, hobbies and shared interests to discuss. If you can find a “real person” within your nemesis that will help you to relate better to him in business situations down the road.  It’s also possible that you can slowly build some trust over time, but don’t be so naïve in thinking that given the opportunity he won’t throw you under the bus!
  3. Keep focused on the business - Business is business so don’t make it personal. You will set an example for your team and send a strong message up your management chain if you are committed to put your interpersonal issues aside for the good of the business. It’s useless to worry about things that aren’t in your control. You can’t control what other people do (to you) but you have complete control over what you can do for the business.
  4. Promote your enemy - Most of my executive clients have the greatest difficulty with this part. Finding ways to promote your enemies will clearly demonstrate that you are not competing with them and instead are focused on company success vs. your own personal agenda. This is a very powerful technique to disarm your enemies and demonstrate to the organization that you’re well above petty in-fighting.

Since then, I’ve faced many more “Nicoles” (and “Nicks”) in my travels as a high-tech exec. At best I’ve been successful in turning difficult relationships into productive, collaborative ones. At worst, I’ve kept my arch enemies at bay – limiting their damage by keeping them on my radar.

What strategies have you used to work through personal conflict situations? Please share your experience. If you found this interesting, please use the toolbar below to share it with your network.


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The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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