How to Handle Enemies & Adversaries

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If everyone looks like an enemy, then you are either in a toxic workplace or you need to consider therapy. But if you sense that one or two people have become your opponents, you may very well be right. Almost everybody encounters a few adversaries during their career. The ability to recognize adversaries and respond appropriately can be a critical career survival skill. Start by asking yourself three key questions:

  • Is this an actual adversary or simply an annoying person?
  • What does this person want?
  • How do I keep this person from interfering with my success?

Adversary Or Annoying Person?

Annoying People
Some difficult people are not adversaries – they’re just irritating. No matter where you work, you will have co-workers with personalities, habits, or work styles that annoy you. Your reaction to them is a measure of your own maturity and a test of your self-discipline. If you let them push your emotional buttons, you will find yourself entangled in unnecessary conflicts. Successful people don’t allow themselves to be distracted by frustrating colleagues.

Different Types of Adversaries
A true adversary has an agenda that makes it difficult for you to accomplish important goals. Some want to do you harm, while others are simply self-centered – however, all of them are operating against your best interests. Having identified an adversary, you must next figure out what this person wants.

Here is an important psychological truth: All behavior has a purpose. So regardless of how irrational your adversary’s actions may seem, there is a reason for them. When grouped by motive, adversaries fall into the three categories discussed below: (1) Focused, (2) Emotional, or (3) Vengeful. These are discussed below.

Responding to an Adversary
Having determined the adversary’s motive, you must then figure out how to respond. Your goal is not to punish adversaries, but to keep them from interfering with your success. You have two options: either convert an adversary to an ally by improving the relationship or take steps to contain the person’s destructive potential. Specific strategies for handling each type are outlined below.

Type 1: Focused Adversaries

What do they want?
Focused Adversaries simply view you as an obstacle to getting something they want. Their opposition is not personal (although it may feel like it). Some are driven by career ambitions, while others want to promote their own point of view, without regard to the concerns or needs of others. With Focused Adversaries, you must resist the temptation to get into an ongoing power struggle. Going to war with your opponent will make you appear uncooperative, make others uncomfortable, and invite retaliation from your adversary. Once a power struggle is underway, someone is likely to lose, and it might be you.

How should you respond?

  1. With Focused Adversaries, the preferred outcome is to convert them to allies. For this to happen, your opponents must believe that (a) your goals do not conflict with theirs and (b) cooperating with you might contribute to their own success. Therefore, you need to work on identifying common goals and developing a collaborative, non-threatening relationship.
  2. If Focused Adversaries cannot be converted, then they must be contained. One effective strategy is to increase your own leverage by strengthening your relationships with people who have power or influence. For example, if an unscrupulous colleague is trying to take over some of your responsibilities, you probably need to enhance your reputation with key managers.

Type 2: Emotional Adversaries

What do they want?
Emotional Adversaries are a completely different breed. These poor souls are truly out of control, driven by intense emotional needs. Beneath their dysfunctional behavior is a deep-seated anger or anxiety that frequently overrides the more logical portion of their brain. One sure sign of an Emotional Adversary is that they create problems for everyone, not just for you – and they are unlikely to change without the help of therapy or medication or both. Some are angry, some are needy, and some are just chronically oppositional, but they all suck up energy that could be put to better use.

How should you respond?

  1. Remember that the behavior of Emotional Adversaries is triggered by their needs, not by your actions. At work, we expect people to act like adults, but Emotional Adversaries seem more like children. They throw tantrums, pout, form cliques, play power games, seek attention, or get their feelings hurt. The greatest risk with Emotional Adversaries is that they can “hook” you into playing their destructive games.
  2. Although Emotional Adversaries can occasionally be converted to allies, containment is usually a more practical goal. Your objective is to reduce their disruptive behavior, particularly around you. To do this, you must therefore control your own reactions, because an emotional response is exactly what this adversary wants (albeit sometimes unconsciously). No matter what they do, maintain a calm, rational, adult demeanor. During every interaction, focus like a laser on your immediate objective and don’t be distracted by their irrelevant or annoying antics. There is one exception to this rule: if an adversary is truly disturbed, with absolutely no control over their behavior, nothing you do will make any difference. Then the only solution is to stay out of their way.

Type 3: Vengeful Adversaries

What do they want?
The most difficult and unpleasant enemies are Vengeful Adversaries, because they are clearly out to get you. If you run into one of these malicious people, watch out! Some Vengeful Adversaries are quite open and direct: they don’t like you, and you know that they don’t like you. Others, however, are Stealth Opponents, who avoid direct confrontation. These sneaky characters specialize in pointed remarks, subtle challenges, cold shoulders, and disparaging comments. With some, you may never even know they are an adversary until someone else tells you. Or you suddenly find yourself unemployed. Stealth Opponents are vicious. A close encounter with one can make you feel justifiably paranoid for quite awhile.

How should you respond?

  1. For starters, try to avoid creating Vengeful Adversaries. A few warped people are vengeful by nature, but they are a tiny minority. More often, these adversaries are retaliating for something that you did, perhaps unintentionally.
  2. To convert a Vengeful Adversary, you must first examine your own actions to see what might have triggered their resentment. If you have no clue, then try the direct, problem-solving approach. For this to work, you must be sincere in your desire to improve the relationship.

Such a discussion begins with an opening like this: “Ed, I don’t think that our working relationship is going very well, and I’m not sure what’s causing the problem. I’d like to see if we could figure out how to improve things. What do you think about the situation?”

Several things might happen next:
a) Ed may describe the problem, b) Ed may tell you to go to hell, c) Ed may wimp out by saying that no problem exists. Whatever his reaction, you must remain non-defensive and calmly persist until you understand his point of view. Then suggest what you yourself might do differently in the future.

After demonstrating your own willingness to change, you should be able to make reasonable requests of the other party. If this approach works, you will have defused an adversary, possibly created an ally, and undoubtedly made your life at work more pleasant.

3) However, if your Vengeful Adversary is not a rational person, forget about problem solving. just focus on containment, and take steps to protect your reputation. Be sure that you know what is being said about you. Shore up your relationships with powerful people. Don’t antagonize your oppponent, but watch your back.

The Ultimate Solution

The best remedy for adversaries is to have a lot of allies. Positive relationships build political capital, so you need to have as many of them as possible. If you are widely viewed as a trustworthy, helpful colleague, then adversaries will find few opportunities to cause you any serious harm. For advice on building a network of allies, see How Good Is Your Network at Work?