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How to handle enemies

When she worked for a Fortune 100 company, Chris Carosella was a star: Rapidly promoted and regularly rewarded with challenging assignments that gave her further opportunity to shine. Her success alone might have made some of her peers rivalrous. Carosella was smart enough to know that -- but even she didn't anticipate some of the hostility she encountered.

"I was the only woman on the senior management team of one company," Carosella told me. "Eleven men plus me. At my first senior staff meeting, I disagreed with a comment one of my colleagues made about a strategic issue."

"After the meeting was over, he said, "Chris, don't you know you're just the [expletive] at the table? No one cares what you think," she recalled.

I suspect that nowadays, most people would be more circumspect. But the fact remains that we all - men and women - encounter hostility at work sometimes. What's the best way to do it? Carosella's strategy taught me a thing or two.

She did not run around and tell everyone what had happened. Doing so, she reckoned, would achieve nothing. Instead she did something bolder: When he made good suggestions at meetings, she endorsed them. And if she disagreed, she let him know. Over time, he came to see that she held her ground and wouldn't be bullied or cajoled. It became obvious that she was really good at her job, deserved to be there and had the power to make him look good. Over time, he became an ally. A few years later, when he left to become president of his own company, he asked Carosella to join him, as his COO - something she didn't consider for a moment.

I don't know many executives who could have handled this relationship with such poise. When colleagues attack you, it's hard not to take it personally. Of course you want to retaliate. But Carosella occupied the moral high ground and held on to it; that could only ever make her look good. She never fooled herself that the two of them were friends or even peers. But neither did she allow herself to become vindictive. She resolutely played her own game - not his.

The advice I find myself giving executives most often is the simplest: Never take work rivalries personally. Doing so wastes energy and makes you lose focus. Excellence is the goal; the minute you're distracted from it, they win, you lose.

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