What to Do About Your Worst Work Enemy

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Fighting with your co-workers? There are ways to fix the relationship that will make you happier and more productive in the office.

Describing the modern workplace might go something like this: assemble a group of motivated, ambitious people, give them all overlapping responsibilities and set them loose to achieve their objectives. Despite thoughtful hiring practices, competent management and competitive compensation, people are bound to run into each other from time to time. And things can go bad between co-workers fast.

Small slights – intended or perceived – can lead to resentment, distrust, aggravation and, in the worst cases, a complete breakdown in office relationships. It may be your boss, a subordinate or just that guy who sits in the next cubicle, but when any of these relationships sour, they can drag down your own happiness and productivity. 

But only the rarest cases deteriorate to the point of no return. Brian Uzzi, a professor of Leadership at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and author of the Harvard Business Review article, "Make Your Enemies Your Allies," has developed an approach to fixing these relationships gone bad. He calls it the 3Rs. 

  1. Redirect. Deal with the emotional character of the person and their state of mind. Once a relationship is in a death spiral, the participants are on guard and feeling threatened. Uzzi suggests redirecting those negative emotions toward something or someone else by placing "in the person's mind another explanation for why they may feel the negative emotions they do toward you." Force them to focus on what else could have caused this situation. Possibly, a decision by a higher-up that affects both of you, but may be more negative for them. If you didn't create the problem, make sure they know that. 
  2. Reciprocity. This is not "I do this for you and you do this for me." Uzzi says that leads to a one-time transaction. His reciprocity principle says "give before you ask." Give the other person something to entice them to rebuild the relationship. Let them see that there are benefits with no strings attached. 
  3. Rationality. Set the terms of your new understanding. Be really clear about what you expect from them and what they can expect from you. And also acknowledge that this will be a break from the past. 

Other people in the office can play a big role in helping get a poor relationship back on track. Go through the same steps with a person close to your rival. Get them to see your side and let that trickle back to their friend.

Finally, the office may not be the best place to do all of this. Do it over lunch or at happy hour, somewhere that's neutral environment and doesn't remind both of you of your frustrations and mutual exasperation.