MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Working with the enemy

Working relationships can sometimes be tested to the limit. Here's how to keep your head when dealing with workplace conflicts.

by Mike Leibling
Last Updated: 10 Dec 2010
I have no idea what drove Gordon Ramsey to fire his father-in-law, or what sparked his public letter to his mother-in-law (which fascinatingly began 'Dear Mother-In-Law' - is that really what he calls her?). But I do know that when we feel there's an enemy close by, we can feel very insecure, having to think twice about every single thing we say or do. So here are ten top tips to ensure working relationships are as harmonious as possible.  

1. Keep it 100% professional and forward-focused
For example, 'Let's keep personalities out of this. Professionally we have the same aims for the future, so let's focus on what we're trying to achieve, yes?'

2. Stop thinking of the enemy as 'the enemy'
Thinking of people in a bad way makes us feel bad. So try sticking to neutral thoughts about these 'enemies' - maybe seeing them as people just like all others, whose ways of working and being have simply been harder to fathom in the past.

3. Find out how to defuse their enmity
There's a strategy that usually works: take responsibility and ask them how to shape the future. For example: 'I know we've been clashing a lot lately. Please tell me what I can do or say, or stop doing or saying, that'll help?' Then wait patiently (i.e. silently) for them to think. Or offer them the option to meet up later. (This also works well by email or voicemail, i.e. when you can leave a message without having to speak to them there and then.)
4. Remember: 'Things Can Only Get Better' is a song title, not an excuse for doing nothing
Remember, Once is an Incident, Twice is a Coincidence, and Three times is a Pattern.  So if we see a pattern emerging, then it's sensible to nip it in the bud. (Ever hear anyone say 'I wish I'd put this off even longer?' Nope, nor have I.)

5. Speak to others
Get ideas from people who know you both, or who don't even know the situation at all. Get at least three 'Maybe you could…' or 'Perhaps you might…' ideas that appeal to you. (As well as getting fresh thinking, be aware that what's even worse than feeling under attack is feeling under attack and alone.)

6. If at first you don't succeed…
…please don't 'try and try again'. What you tried didn't work, so try something different. For example, try the opposite, so if you've been dealing with them one-on-one, try in a corridor next time. (Corridors are great for dealing with matters in a lighter way, in passing, rather than trapped in a room together.)

7. Don't take it personally
They might be making it personal, but there's no need to take it personally. Whether at work or at home 'Let's stick to what we're trying to achieve here…' is a good future-focus.

8. Keep your chin up
Yes, seriously, sit upright or stand tall - like a journalist holding a pen and pad and simply noting facts, not indulging in emotion. (Why? Well, I've never seen anyone sitting or standing tall who's able to say convincingly 'I feel depressed'. Try it, both slouched and straight - in that order.)

9. Face facts: if we're feeling bullied, then we're being bullied
Whether the 'bully' means us to feel bullied or not, it's our organisation's responsibility to sort it out, not ours. We should check out  the bullying policy to see how to proceed, especially if the 'bully' is the person we report to. And if there is no such policy, we can check out examples on the internet and ask our line manager to help to get a policy in place 'as we're in a situation where this needs to happen'. (And if the line manager is the 'bully' they will often be mortified that we feel like this, as that was not their intention. Or if it was their intention they'll know it's out in the open now. And, either way, we'll have started regaining control.)

10. Think of leaving
But surely that's a last resort, with huge consequences, isn't it? Well, no, actually. The last resort is a stress breakdown, heart attack or stroke. And sometimes it's easier to admit that we're in completely the wrong environment and we'll never feel 'at home' there. It happens. We can't test-drive jobs before we commit to them. And places and cultures change.
Mike Leibling is a corporate mentor and author of 'Working With The Enemy' and 'How People Tick'

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