Conflicts in the office are as rampant as water coolers... and as they are in politics. Alliances are made, but can dissipate overnight. Enemies are made, but most have enough emotional intelligence to keep things professional.
Then there are “frenemies.” And while that typically denotes people who act like friends, but have an underlying dislike for each other – there is another variety that has appeared lately on the media radar. Namely, former foes you bring into your inner circle, either to learn from, or enhance your power.
As Donald Trump considers Mitt Romney for Secretary of State, it is reminiscent of a style of management that is often seen in the boardroom. There are several rationales for this practice, depending on the person, aka boss or coworker.
Some morph their foes into friends as a sound way to enlighten themselves to opposing opinions, which takes guts. It’s often said that you will learn far more from your adversaries than allies.
Others ingratiate their enemies to eliminate “bad press," i.e., if you suddenly give them power, they will convert from troublemaker to supporter; ala the adage, “Keep your enemies close.”
Still others revel in the fact that they’re putting their frenemy in an awkward or more definitive subordinate spot, e.g., “Now that I’ve given X power, money or visibility, it’s clear that they: a) Will need to back pedal, or b) Just wanted some of those spoils."
If you're unexpectedly recruited to help out a new manager or coworker you figured would prefer you just go away, you may fall into this perplexing dynamic. It can make you uneasy, because the foundation of your relationship has been built on mistrust.
Unlike the current political news scenario, you may have never said anything disparaging about the person, but still, you’re confounded due to past, inadvertent run-ins.
You may wonder if your career future could be hurt because you now must report to someone who hasn’t had your best interests at heart. In the best-case scenario, you may be relieved that perhaps they’re turning a new leaf.
1) Try to understand their motives. By paying close attention to how your new manager interacts with others, you’ll pick up cues on whether they’re putting the past aside or have other intentions, e.g., they’re threatened by you and want to ensure you won’t outshine them. You may need to brush up on your managing up skills to tamp down tensions.
2) Stay above the fray. Now’s a good time to ramp up your emotional intelligence. One way to gain control during this transition is to neutralize your emotions and make an extra effort to take the proverbial high road. If your boss or coworker tries to tease or subtly bully you about your former battles, don’t take the bait. Stay professional and diplomatic. Your work product takes precedence over any political jockeying.
3) Be prepared to explain your stance to peers. If you were clearly at odds with this manager, and your coworkers are well aware of it, expect to be questioned about how things are going. Curiosity about strained work relationships is always of peak interest in the office.
Be prepared to explain how you’re feeling about the awkward dynamic – in a way that puts you in a professional light. You don’t want the rumor mill to sabotage your career. And chances are you can’t refuse the project. For example, you might respond, “Well I’m sure I’ll learn a few things. John obviously has some good leadership traits.”
4) Bravely communicate. There’s no sin in inviting your "surprise" manager to lunch; mentioning that you’re flattered; and inquiring about what skills they're seeking in you – perfectly legitimate. You may get some valued insight. Keep in mind you’re there to succeed. Now’s your chance to figure out how, especially given the new circumstances.
5) Assume the best. Your career can’t suffer if you give it a chance, even if your manager seems to have had an ulterior motive at first. And it's possible that the person is genuinely interested in mending fences. Interpersonal dynamics in the office are rarely stagnant. You might gain a new respect for each other. Your optimism may be contagious and earlier contention could dissolve.
If Mitt Romney becomes Secretary of State, he will likely find areas of common ground, bringing them to the forefront. If so, you may see other ways in which the “pros” handle this unique form of awkward.