Emotional intelligence: How to deal with a workplace foe

Emotional intelligence: How to deal with a workplace foe

Can a workplace enemy hurt your productivity or even your career? Absolutely. Consider these seven tips to improve the relationship and protect yourself

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Workplace conflict comes with the job for IT leaders charged with driving change. But when differences of opinion compound into workplace enemy territory – creating hypercompetitive or otherwise antagonistic or unproductive relationships – it’s time to take a step back, reassess the situation, and apply some emotional intelligence.

“This is a particular challenge for CIOs because CIOs need to build collaborative teams of high performers,” says Dr. Maurice Schweitzer, the Cecelia Yen Koo professor of operations at the Wharton School of Business, Information, and Decisions, who studies emotions, ethical decision-making, and negotiation. “High performers are likely to be ambitious and strategic and may be exactly the types of people who see peers as competitors.”

[ How strong are your soft skills? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ]

There are, however, a number of tacks IT leaders can take to reorient their interactions with an organizational foe. In their book, “Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both,” Schweitzer and co-author Adam Galinsky, of Columbia Business School, argue that every relationship vacillates between friend and foe status because our interests are as likely to diverge as align.

The goal isn’t to cooperate more or compete harder, but to balance friend and foe tendencies in a way that delivers more value to both parties.

That’s especially true at work where we may, on one hand, collaborate with our colleagues to accomplish projects, and on the other, compete with people for resources, recognition, or promotions. The goal, the professors argue, isn’t to cooperate more or compete harder, but to balance the friend and foe tendencies in a way that may deliver more value to both parties.

So, what does that look like in reality – particularly when an IT leader is butting heads with a co-worker? Schweitzer offers the following tips for neutralizing some of the negativity and working toward a more balanced relationship.

1. Learn to recognize your workplace adversaries

“Recognizing a foe is sometimes difficult,” Schweitzer says. “Many foes engage in ‘behind the scenes’ efforts to undermine your success. They might say critical things about you to colleagues, fail to support your ideas, or provide mixed support in ways that are difficult to discern.”

The best place to begin is with your peer set – those with whom you might be in competition for scarce resources such as promotions, funding, and access, or those who have similar backgrounds. Take a moment to characterize your baseline relationship, advises Schweitzer, and then be on the lookout for undermining behaviors.

2. Be proactive with potential foes

Try to start relationships on a cooperative footing.

Think about what you can do to build rapport with those who may see you as a threat in some way. One key finding highlighted in the book: It’s best to start relationships on a cooperative footing. You might ask this person for advice or perspective on something (which can also help to reveal their mindset and motives in the process). “Sometimes just spending time, going to lunch, developing a relationship can shift how people feel,” says Schweitzer.

3. Determine the root cause

“It is important to consider the broader context of your relationship. Is your foe a peer who is concerned about your competition for a scarce resource, such as a promotion? Or is your foe reacting to something else?” Schweitzer says. “The key idea is to figure out why a foe would want to undermine your success, figure out if there is something structural you could change, and absolutely figure out ways to inoculate yourself from the damage a co-worker can inflict on your career.”

4. Consider your role in the situation

Your glad tidings can fuel your foe’s resentment.

Human beings, by nature, are constantly comparing themselves to others – particularly when they receive new information. At the same time, we are all more likely to share our good news and successes than our failures and shortcomings.

Your glad tidings, however, can fuel your foe’s resentment. That’s why Schweitzer urges IT leaders to be modest at all turns. “When you update your kitchen, go on a great vacation, get a promotion, or get a larger office, try to avoid giving everyone a tour or a slideshow of your photos,” he says. Often, he notes, adversarial feelings are rooted in envy.

5. Find a common enemy

You can use the competitive instinct of a foe to your advantage. One of the best ways to transform competitors into collaborators is to focus on a common goal, says Schweitzer, like competing against someone else. An IT leader might engage the other party in solving a problem related to a market competitor, for example. Anything that binds you together, he points out, is a step in the right direction.

[ Do you match your decision-making style to the problem? Read also: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader's guide. ]

6. Protect yourself

If all else fails, distance yourself where possible. “Think carefully about steps you can take to rely on them less,” Schweitzer says, “perhaps working for a different manager or [striving] to make your path more distinct.”

7. Understand that having a workplace foe can indicate progress

A people-pleasing CIO may find the idea of workplace foes unpalatable. However, finding that you have a foe at work may not be a bad sign, according to Schweitzer. “It could reflect your potential, recognition, and progress at work. Peers who see you as a competitor may feel threatened,” he notes. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to try to bring the relationship back into balance, if possible, if it is impacting you personally or professionally.

[ What messages do you send to colleagues? Read our related article: 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.

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