How to Deal With a Workplace Nemesis

Last Updated Dec 23, 2009 1:59 PM EST

Not many people can make your life miserable. Your spouse, your boss, a problem employee, your teenage kid, a crazy neighbor, an incompetent contractor, it's a short list. And near the top is someone we've all experienced: the workplace nemesis.

I'm not just talking about somebody you can't stand. I'm talking about a nemesis - a formidable rival, an archenemy, an opponent who can seriously impact your job, your career, or at least your sanity.

I've had a number of nemeses over the years. To be fair, they probably saw me in much the same way that I saw them. But then, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's still a lesson to be learned. Here's a story about one nemesis that stands above all others:

Ever heard of "two-in-a-box" management? That's when two executives share responsibility for a single function? They may or may not have distinct responsibilities and direct reports, but regardless, this type of organizational structure is, in a nutshell, corporate Darwinism.

Anyway, Mike and I were both VPs of marketing at a public company. I had corporate responsibility while Mike was the product guy, but since we were both vying for control of the marketing function, we came to blows on just about every strategic issue.
Now, Mike came from a "really big" company - a card he would play whenever push came to shove. My experience, on the other hand, was more scrappy or guerilla marketing. As such, we had very different perspectives.

Mike loved to diss me in executive staff meetings. He'd interrupt me with some underhanded remark and launch into a dissertation about how they did it at the really big company. Not to be pushed around, I regularly bullied and intimidated Mike and his people in marketing meetings. I guess we both had our moments.

From that experience and way too many others, I've developed some expertise on the subject. So, here are five tips on How to Deal With a Workplace Nemesis:

  1. Get over yourself and deal with it. More than anything in the world, you want your nemesis gone, but that's just not going to happen. You're both there for a reason, and it's not likely that either of you are going to change that.
  2. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Just because you come to blow over issues doesn't mean you can't be civil about it. Mike and I used to get together one-on-one over lunch from time to time. That helps to mitigate the tension.
  3. Don't let ego get in the way of business. Don't forget who hired you and pays your salary - your employer. You serve the company and its customers. It's not about you, and if you make it about you, VP, CEO, whatever, you'll likely be looking for a new job.
  4. Take a long, hard look at yourself. While it's tempting to use your nemesis as a punching bag for everything that pisses you off in life, remember that he has the same choice to make about you. Look at yourself from his perspective. It may not be a pretty sight.
  5. Maintain perspective. In the situation with Mike, it really doesn't matter who the biggest a-hole was (he was) or who won out in the end (I did). What really matters is that you act like adults and find a way to minimize the friction so the company can benefit from what both of you bring to the table.
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