Doing Battle at Work

“If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time, cease to react at all.” — Yogi Bhajan

A vexed friend recently asked me how to deal with a coworker that had seemed to put a target on her back. For whatever reason, this person appeared to be dealing dirty to my friend in a series of underhanded workplace jabs, and she was not sure how best to manage it. She had been overtly pushing back in her own way, as one is likely to do when seemingly under attack, but to no avail. The behavior continued and was escalating, despite her attempts to get this person to back off.

This is what I told her:

I was privileged in forty years in the business world to have worked with many wonderful people and for super ownership, but as I think it is true in even the healthiest of work environments, I had my share of personal battles with people that just didn’t, for whatever reason, seem to like me. It’s going to happen pretty much anywhere, and even in the best corporate cultures you can assume there will be what I call the “2% Jerk Factor.” There are always a few people who seem to enjoy making other people uncomfortable, or even miserable. It is what it is.

My four decades in the business world and in management was punctuated here and there by the predictable “learning experience” whereby I was challenged by a liar, cheater, idea thief, back-stabber, bully, emotional manipulator, crabby incompetent or screamer; above, below and adjacent to me, who would have liked nothing more than to have seen me crash and burn as an employee. Over time and after many mistakes, I discovered an effective system to do battle with miscreant outliers like this in the workplace and decisively win, every time. Win is defined as the absolute freedom to do my work without this kind of unproductive hassle.

First, let me say that going to HR, your boss or having an inevitably emotional face to face confrontation with your opponent may not work very well. HR and your boss may be accommodating and provide helpful suggestions but almost certainly have bigger fish to fry and would likely appreciate it if you were able to manage this situation effectively on your own. The one on one confrontation with your nemesis can play right into their hand, if not managed deftly, and I would actually not recommend going face to face without a witness, if that’s the route you want to follow.

These may seem like good options to you, but my experience and that of many others I have seen deal with behavior like this demonstrate that there is another very effective choice that you can try. Now if any law is being broken, you feel sexually harassed, discriminated against in any way or you fear for your personal safety, that’s an entirely different situation and you should elevate your concerns to your boss and HR immediately. But if it’s just a case of your coworker not playing nice in the sandbox, I have found you can quickly take control of this situation and turn it to your unqualified advantage.

Here you go:

1) Your sword is your work. Focus on the quality and the quantity of your own work, regardless of how much others may try to sabotage it. Nothing is more effective than out-producing those that may wish you ill. I was never the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I always swore no one would outwork me, and I’m not sure anyone measurably did. If someone wanted to do battle with me, they would need to work their tails off and that didn’t happen often.

2) Your armor is your outward positivity: that indefatigable smile that drives your detractor crazy. No matter how turbulent you may feel on the inside, you can develop the ability to exude an outward posture that is positive, upbeat and happy. I always rewarded myself when I was able to get through a day of feeling especially angry toward the world by being wholesome and cheery to all that crossed my path. And it’s not phony: it’s a game you are playing to win. It’s a role you play to entertain an audience that will soon cheer “Bravo!”

3) Your shield is staying focused on critical priorities, doing good things and getting valuable results for the organization, its mission and its people. People are generally broken out into two wholesale groups and gradations thereof: givers and takers. The more giver behavior you demonstrate, the less likely it is that you will ever be taken for someone just in it for him or herself, and you will be held in especially high regard by the people in the organization that can help you move up in it.

4) Keep your eye on the prize. Your work and your organization likely involve a higher purpose that delivers value to others. Spend your time focused on how to do that better, rather than wasting a moment’s engagement focused on someone who can’t understand that.

5) Play your game, not theirs. Their game is to distract you away from your goals. Stay intently focused on your goals, and your rival will be frustrated by your attention to purpose, and in my experience all will eventually be well.

6) Take care of yourself. Doing battle is tough. A jerk surreptitiously or openly out to get you can suck up a lot of emotional energy. Design and implement an emotional and physical health maintenance system for yourself that puts you in the best position to be as tough as nails and highly productive every single day.

7) Have a plan. Review your goals and objectives, including your approach to dealing with any weirdo, every day in some quiet time first thing set aside just for you. Get your head in the right space and exactly where you want it to be before you walk through the workplace door every day. Then keep it there.

8) Look back. You doubtless have a long history of learning and an impressive string of accomplishments and successes that got you where you are. Never forget that and realize that you are way stronger than you may sometimes feel. You got this, and you may just have to remind yourself of that now and again.

9) Have faith and be persistent in your execution of 1) — 8) above. Your resolve to perform will be quickly deduced by your adversary, and they will soon move on and find another target, and will ultimately be found out by your HR Dept. and Management to be a liability to the team. It is not your job or responsibility to fix your opponent or your organization’s corporate culture. Your job is to do your job well, and if you focus myopically on that, my experience is that chances are no one, no matter how pernicious, can ultimately hurt you. In other words, with your focused attention to the basics laid out above, this too shall pass.

Give this approach consistent effort, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the results. If the situation gets uglier or causes you angst that affects your well-being or performance, then a talk with your boss and / or HR (best with your opponent present, I have found) would be warranted, but I am hopeful that will be unnecessary.

This can be fun, because you’re staying very much in control, so by all means, HAVE SOME FUN!

(Original artwork by Joan E. Hargate)



Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.

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Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.