I got better grades than she did, but not by much. And she was popular, athletic, and a cheerleader from junior high on. Our parents were friends, too, so we sometimes took summer vacations together.
When I saw her recently, I realized how much our lives had diverged since high school graduation. From the perspective of four decades later, I could be glad my life turned out the way it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to face some of the challenges she did. But I sincerely hoped that she was as happy with her life as I was with mine.
Time had made our differences far less important than they seemed in high school.
Then I got to thinking about all the nemeses I’ve had at work. Here were some:
- The attorney who was slightly more senior than me who grabbed the best assignments and only passed on the grunt work she didn’t want.
- The HR director who monopolized our mutual boss’s time.
- The division VP who wouldn’t provide the feedback on incentive plans that the CEO had ordered me to get.
How should we deal with difficult people in the workplace, the ones who seem to be trying deliberately to make our lives a challenge? Here are a few ideas:
1. Talk to the individual. Maybe the person doesn’t know the impact of his or her actions on you. Or maybe there’s some problem that individual has that you didn’t know about. Even if their actions are deliberate, or they don’t care, at least you’ve put them on notice that you’re aware of their behavior.
2. Get support from your manager, mentor, or others. Find out if others have had the same experience. Again, there may be information or history on the situation that you don’t know. What have others done about the problem? Is there a way for you to complain together to obtain relief?
3. Document your issues. When you talk to your nemesis, make sure to put a note in your files. Better yet, send a follow-up email—in a polite tone, or even a friendly tone, if you can manage it—setting out the problem and any agreed changes. A thank-you for any commitments to change wouldn’t hurt.
4. Suck it up. Sometimes a problem isn’t worth confronting. Or sometimes the advice you get from others is not to do anything. You will then have to decide whether you can continue working with that person or not. Whether you decide to stay or leave, at least you haven’t burned any bridges with that individual or others.
Conflict is an unavoidable part of working with other people, so we will all face it at some time. How we choose to deal with conflict determines whether the problem gets better or worse.
Who were (are) your workplace nemeses, and how have you dealt with them?