In The Workplace
Enemies in the workplace, blatant or subtle,
threaten your credibility and success.
But only if you let them.
Whether you like it or not, you can't control how others respond to you in every circumstance. Most of you can probably say that you have positive and productive people around you in the workplace. On the flip side, nearly every one of you will encounter a credibility threat in the workplace at some point in your career, if you haven't already.
These threats come in the form of people who make it a point to discredit or damage the reputation of others. You find them in every walk of life. Some people make themselves feel better by making other people feel bad. They make themselves look better by making someone else look bad. Threatening actions can be obvious and overt. They can also be subtle, doing as much if not more damage while going largely unnoticed. Often, you don't even know why you've become a target. In the best of cases, your enemies are known. In the worst, damage is being done without your knowledge or awareness.
How do you even know if you have enemies?
What if you have an enemy, and avoidance doesn't solve the problem?
How do you remove a threat without sinking to their level?
People often ask, "Why me?" when they find out that someone isn't acting in their best interests. Trying to understand why you've been targeted as an enemy can be very challenging. Sometimes the answer comes easily. You may be a strong performer or be highly favored by your manager. Your actions may have resulted in someone else being embarrassed, or put in an awkward situation. Any number of things can cause someone to target you as an enemy. As frustrating as it can be, sometimes you have no idea why someone is gunning for you. In my experience, you can be fairly certain that it's happening for one of two reasons.
You pose a threat. Something about you - your background, your position, your performance, or your influence - is posing a threat to another's success. In this case, they're acting out of fear, even if it's masked in aggressiveness.
They're a bully by nature. You've attracted the attention of someone who needs to dominate. It could be that you're an easy target for them, providing them with many opportunities to pick on you. Or it could be that you're a hard target, all the more challenging and rewarding to dominate.
I could probably argue that both of these are in play when you find yourself under attack by another. None-the-less, the good news is that your options for managing these situations remain largely the same regardless of the trigger.
An Enemy In Your Midst
I'll start with the obvious and say that sometimes you're very clear that you have an enemy. Even though it seems a little ridiculous to say, sometimes you may not even know you have an enemy. It's important to pay attention to how people treat you. Here are some threats you may have experienced, including subtle and covert behaviors that are just as damaging as overt ones.
If you're lucky, your enemy will come right out and tell you that you've been targeted and why. At least you know what you're dealing with. In most situations, overt enemies will be obvious to you, and also to a subset of others. When someone demonstrates aggressive behavior, in word or action, you can be certain they've targeted you as an enemy. Verbal posturing, intimidation, attempts at humiliation, and repeated mistreatment are all part of this game. Generally, your enemy's intention is to do harm and that intention is only lightly veiled, if at all. In nearly every case, the behavior of overt enemies escalates over time, making it increasingly difficult to ignore.
Smart enemies are often subtle in their approach. Often these individuals are strong performers, highly articulate, and respected by others. They typically operate within the accepted cultural guidelines of the workplace, to avoid being seen as an overt enemy by others. They are skilled manipulators and take advantage of opportunities to damage others in subtle ways. The arsenal of a subtle enemy is likely to include ignoring or discounting you publicly to feel superior. They also typically challenge your performance with others when they know you have some level of exposure. They may try to represent you as hypersensitive if you raise concerns about their behavior.
The most dangerous of enemies you can attract in the workplace are those that remain covert. These enemies target you quietly and indirectly. They speak unfavorably about you behind your back, while being friendly and positive (or neutral) to your face. They have candid discussions with you to earn your trust and become a confidante, only to share what they've learned in an way that can cause you harm.
Someone may be a covert enemy if you experience the following types of scenarios. You hear more than once from others that they thought "the two of you didn't like each other." You get feedback from someone that reflects negatively on you; the information could only be known in detail (or in the specific way it was presented), if it came from that person. You hear through the company grapevine that this person isn't a fan of yours, and you can't think of any direct interaction that would cause them to feel that way. In private discussions, someone shows support for a decision or action. When it's announced or shared with others, their support lags or is in conflict without warning on more than one occasion.
You'd be surprised how often people disassociate threatening behaviors from the potential harm they can cause. Subtle and covert enemies are far more dangerous to you than overt bullies, who are largely recognized and held in disdain by others. If you find yourself saying, "That's just how he/she is" when a threat is lobbed your way, it may be true. Just remember that repeated actions that serve to discredit you, damage your reputation, or tarnish your image are a threat, plain and simple. Don't write off threatening behavior as a personality flaw in another without considering the damage it can do if you don't address it.
Keep Your Head
Surviving an enemy can be tough, but there are good options to manage these situations. It's important to remember that while every work environment is a bit of a social experiment, it all comes down to the work. You're there to perform and contribute. This is the most important thing to protect at all times - your ability to do the work, and the perceptions others have about it. When choosing how to respond to enemies, consider the impact of their behavior. If it impacts either performance or perception, the situation requires attention.
1. Be oblivious. Let it pass.
Sometimes enemies just aren't very good at what they do (trying to discredit or damage you.) If there's no legitimate chance your enemy can harm you, despite their best efforts, you may be best served by just ignoring them. Chances are they'll do more harm to themselves than to you.
Letting it pass is also a great strategy for situations where someone is floating a trial balloon. By this, I mean someone may not yet see you as an enemy but they're picking a fight just to see how you respond. If you avoid fighting back or taking it personally, sometimes a potential enemy retreats and redirects to another. Unless there's motivation behind an attack, it's just straight-up bullying. Without a response, they'll look for trouble elsewhere.
2. Be smart. Take back power.
Most enemies try to damage perceptions of your performance or your confidence. Bullies know that those two hits are the most damaging. The best way to take a target off of your back is to eliminate your exposure in these two areas.
First, have full transparency about your performance. When an enemy tries to discredit you, they'll be too late. Your credibility will be firmly established. Publish goals and results, and share outcomes with others freely and often. People worry about coming across as arrogant if they boast about results with others. I'm not recommending that you brag in every staff meeting about what you've accomplished. My point is that there are expectations of you as an individual and as a larger team. Sharing your progress productively is positive.
Publish a copy of your performance metrics to your boss and post a copy in your cubical. Share a copy of your team review with peers, showing how your performance helps other parts of the organization. Update your performance review quarterly vs. once annually, with notes and examples of your performance. Share successes with your boss and peers. Be as subtle as you need to be for your own comfort, but make your performance known.
If your performance is challenged in a group setting, indicate that you're happy to share tangible results for review. Then do it. On the next possible occasion, reference back to the comment made and share the latest summary of key performance metrics. Take back power. Don't let anecdotal stories or comments from others stand for any length of time. Respond with facts and data when possible, versus more anecdotes. Bullies will stop when they're forced to abandon manipulation.
As for attacks on confidence, this is far more personal. In a prior post, I commented that when you feel capable and competent, you feel confident. Enemies often intentionally attempt to undermine your confidence. This puts the burden on you to demonstrate your competencies regularly. If you sense an attack on your confidence, fake it even if you're not feeling it. Backing down only gives bullies more room to play.
3. Be direct. Call it out.
If you're in a situation where an enemy can't be ignored and continues to press on your confidence and performance without backing down, you may have to address it directly. Calling out these types of behaviors is very tricky. You can come across as the aggressor if you're not careful.
Generalities are not your friend here. Your objective isn't to win friends, but to change behavior. (Don't even attempt the former; it isn't possible to move quickly from enemies to friends. Finding middle ground with a truce is a win.) If you want to change behavior, you need to discuss specific situations. Here are a few examples:
Rather than accusing someone of misrepresenting your performance: "In our last team meeting, you made a comment that <insert the challenge>. It's not true. I chose not to challenge you on the spot, but I need to clarify the facts for everyone else. I wanted to talk with you first. Is there some reason you believe <insert the challenge> is true?"
Rather than accusing someone of always ignoring you: "I noticed when we were in the hallway with others yesterday, you didn't respond to my comments as part of the group discussion about <topic>. We obviously don't want others to believe we can't work together. I thought I'd check to see if I've done something to bother you? How can we handle those situations differently?"
4. Be wary. Escalate.
Sometimes an enemy can't be stopped from doing damage. Constant challenges to you and your performance can cause others to question if they're missing something - even if you challenge the issues successfully every time they arise. Also important is the fact that the perceived inability of two people to get along, impacts both people, not just the aggressor. When you've tried to ignore, tried to take back power, and been direct with little success, it's time to escalate.
Your first step is to document multiple examples, with great specificity, as to the actions you find challenging. Again, generalities are not your friend. Expect that your supervisor and Human Resources Director will not be well equipped to manage these situations. I recommend that you document only the important, high-impact examples. Leave annoyances to sort out on their own.
Document the concern, with two or more examples, and the behavior you'd prefer to see. Start and end every conversation with the assertion that you're a high-performing employee, contributing toward the organization's goals, and that the behavior of the other person is causing others to question your abilities unfairly. Remember that your objective is not to complain; it's to ask that the other person be held accountable to change non-productive behavior.
Escalating is a bold move. You should expect that there will be some backlash. It could cause an overt or subtle enemy to move into covert territory. That doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do. Others will be more aware of the enemy behavior once it's escalated. Word gets around. Once awareness is higher, tolerance is lower. The impact of their actions, whether obvious or nuanced, will be lessened. Eventually, if they can't have an impact, enemies almost always lose interest.***
I wish I could offer insights as to how to prevent attracting enemies in the first place. It's easy to say that you shouldn't be a threat to anyone, but you can't control whether people are threatened just because of who, and how, you are. You also can't tell someone not to be a bully. Bullies bully. Your best bet is to focus on your performance, be attentive to the interests of others around you, be respectful of others, and do your best to fit in.
You can avoid becoming the collateral damage of enemies. Sometimes just not backing down is enough to make others stop non-productive behavior. Don't be an aggressor, but don't be a victim either. Keep your eyes open for subtle and covert behaviors that may be damaging your ability to be successful.
Ignore what doesn't matter, but address what does. Be smart and take power away from enemies by keeping the facts about your performance front and center. Protect your confidence at all costs. (Read Building Confidence.) If you choose to be direct and request changes in behavior, be specific and tackle only the biggest challenges. If you don't feel you can improve your situation, escalate. It's not a sign of weakness to protect your reputation.
One more note about enemies:
Know that sometimes the role you play makes you more likely to attract enemies. If you represent the voice of the customer back to an organization and things aren't going well, expect that others will struggle. Sales people may be labeled as loose cannons, service leaders may be called inept, and support experts may be told to figure it out... all the while attracting detractors. If you're a technologist, you may be considered disconnected from the real world by the Sales organization because you need more time to get a solution right. There's a bit of a natural pattern in organizations. People with co-dependent relationships to be successful may become contentious and attract enemies through competing interests.
In these situations, I've found that the facts hold enemies at bay. Perceptions are too hard to fight. Non-emotional presentation of the facts doesn't always head off enemies, but it defers those who are bullies looking to deflect attention from their own weakness. Be honest about your challenges, be clear about your victories, and ask for what you need from others. It makes it a lot harder for enemies to gain ground.