My career has spanned several industries and a variety of workplaces. Along the way, I’ve met people I genuinely like. Some develop into friendships that exist outside of work, and others remain close after one or both of us is employed elsewhere. Many continue on as additional faces in our social media feeds; however, if and we when do see each other in real life, the well-wishes are heartfelt.
Even with all those positive experiences, I have yet to work for a company that doesn’t also employ my Work Nemesis. It takes a few weeks before I identify this individual, but by the time my initial security passwords expire, I’ll have located him or her and be wishing they would be reassigned. Permanently.
Perhaps you’re one of those well-adjusted adults who has never had an enemy at work. It’s possible that you’ve never had enemy, period. You are the type to thank the officer who gave you a speeding ticket for keeping your safety top of mind. When you lose your rec league match by a single point, you say “good game” to members of the opposing team…and genuinely mean it. And, whenever possible, you dot the i’s in your correspondence with little hearts. If this sounds like you, then you are an exemplary human being! Please feel free to forward this to your colleagues, because they are likely to be familiar with the subject I’m presenting here.
If you do have a Work Nemesis — and your plans to have him or her reassigned have failed — then you’re in luck. If your irritation with this individual hasn’t warranted the official “nemesis” status just yet, even better. I find these tricks even more effective while the coworker is still in the larvae stage, before they evolve into their fully-grown, mortal enemy state.
1. They Help You Identify Your Kryptonite
In the same way Superman is susceptible to kryptonite’s radiation, we mere mortals will always have areas of vulnerability — no matter how much progress we make in the personal growth category.
When someone begins to get under my skin, they’re helping me locate an area of tenderness. While I want to believe that the feeling will go away once the person bothering me does, that area of sensitivity is there regardless. Even if I get my way momentarily, someone else will come along and inadvertently trigger the same spot. The sooner I locate my own weaknesses, the quicker I can begin to shore up those areas.
2. They’ll Help You Hone Your New Superpower
Once I acknowledge that I’ve got (yet another) “growth opportunity,” I can start building the skills I need to bridge the gap. I once managed a business for a man who was incredibly harsh. No matter what I did, he was never satisfied. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that experience helped me strengthen my backbone exponentially.
Years later, I found myself in a room full of physician executives with equally gruff demeanors. Before long the presentation had devolved into a cacophony of shouting and interruptions. The group demonstrated less decorum than a high school detention room manned by a substitute teacher. Without hesitation, I spoke up with the clarity and force required to effectively wrangle the group back to order. On the plane ride home, I realized that those challenges earlier in my career forced me to find my voice and gave me the confidence to use it.
I’m not advocating tolerating abuse or harassment. However, certain corporate cultures are slower than others to address disruptive behavior. The unfortunate reality is that you may find yourself in a work environment where an individual’s behavior severely blurs the line between exasperating and illegal. In those instances, I’ve had to find that line for myself, seeking input from mentors and colleagues I trust. At times, I’ve reported the behavior according to HR protocol, and in others, I opted to turn the other cheek. In each instance, though, I clarified my expectations for the type of treatment I expect in my professional relationships and became more adept at teaching others how to respect those boundaries.
3. They Might Be an Ally in Disguise
Although he wasn’t officially a nemesis, I definitely had an unspoken competition with a male colleague earlier in my career. Jim was everything I wasn’t: confident, good with spreadsheets, and male. Prior to this experience, I’d have made him the bull’s-eye for every ounce of my competitive energy.
At first, I tried to mold myself into a blonde female version of him. One of the executives mentoring me noticed this, and inquired why I was refusing to play to my strengths (creativity, strategic thinking, and creating and delivering a compelling narrative). She explained, “We already have a Jim — we don’t need a second one. We hired you to be you.” By bringing my right-brain-leaning perspective to the table, Jim and I made a stronger team than if I had continued trying to emulate his skill set at every turn.
As I began to “act as if” it really was fine for me to be myself, I discovered that this rivalry existed mostly in my head. Shifting my perspective meant that instead of playing everything close to the vest, I now had a dependable colleague I could turn to when I needed to bounce an idea off of someone, or just commiserate about organizational politics.
So what if this person really IS a Work Nemesis? Sadly, that’s not a fireable offense. Occasionally, a bona fide nemesis has helped me move on from a work environment that tolerates that kind of nonsense. This galaxy is so vast there’s plenty of opportunity to put your superpowers to good use elsewhere.