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How to Manage Your Enemies

Your new work relationship diagnostic tool

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” —Confucius

Our firm is retained to work with high-potential leaders who work as physicians, engineers, scientists, and financial analysts. What is common with these professions is the emphasis on making a thorough diagnosis before taking action. Their companies provide them with the tools and time to conduct a diagnosis within their technical domains.

It is ironic that these same professionals lack the tools and time for diagnosing work relationships. Does the vignette flow sound familiar to you?

“I thought Fred was my ‘friend”: Our families have had dinner at each other’s homes, and we have played golf together. He now works against my interests. I feel Fred has ‘betrayed’ me. Fred is now my ‘enemy.’”

Once a diagnosis like this has been made, sand is thrown into the gears of what ought to be a smoothly running operation.

Consider the diagnostic tool we have developed for our client companies.

We teach people to look at two parallel relationship continuums: unconditional and conditional. Step number one is to assign the working relationship to the proper continuum.

Unconditional Relationship Continuums


Our operational definition of friends is “unconditional trust.”

Work friends do not require organization charts, compensation systems, or job descriptions. Real friends at work are rare. The work world is contingency-driven and goal-oriented. It is a harsh soil to cultivate the plant of friendship. Former U.S. President Harry Truman may not have been off the mark when he said of Washington, D.C., relationships: “If you want a friend, get a dog.”


“Unconditional mistrust” is our definition of enemies. You can count on them to work against your interests regardless of your behavior. They wish you out of the organization, and nothing less will satisfy them. We see friends and enemies as existing along a common relationship continuum called “unconditional.”

In a work world that is often unpredictable, short-term, and contingency-focused, the constellation of job-related relationships constantly changes. Enemies and friends, on the other hand, are the North Stars. Reliable enemies can be more reassuring than unstable chums.

Sometimes, leaders cultivate enemies. At the institutional level, having powerful enemies gives zest, self-definition, and consistency: Coke needs Pepsi; Venezuela needs the United States. Haven’t you seen this work at your own company?

The most difficult part of our work with leaders is to provide them with an objective way to understand that they have improperly misdiagnosed an adversary as an enemy. We find that people are reluctant to let go of their enemies!

Conditional Relationship Continuums

If friends and enemies are rare, then allies and adversaries are common. These are conditional relationships. Adversaries work against your interests to advance their self-interest. If their self-interest changes, adversaries can easily become allies. For example:

The heads of sales and the head of manufacturing are often adversaries because of different functional responsibilities and different compensation objectives. One is evaluated on the basis of top-line growth, and the other is evaluated on the basis of producing reliable products as cheaply as possible. Change the compensation system for both to increase net income over a three-year period, and you will see a positive change in collaboration.


When adversaries/allies have little emotional bonding with each other, they are called colleagues.

When adversaries or allies have a positive emotional feeling towards each other, they are called chums.

Two CEOs of competing privately held companies belong to the same golf club and enjoy playing with each other. They have quietly purchased condos in the same building and take vacations at the same time so that they can be with each other.

Chums can quickly become adversaries if it suits them.

Four Common Relationship Management Mistakes

Below are four common relationship management errors we see using our diagnostic tool:

1. Failure to Differentiate Enemies From Adversaries

One of the hardest issues in relationship management is an accurate classification of enemies versus adversaries. Accurate diagnosis is hard because enemies sometimes masquerade as adversaries. For example:

“I personally like Jane. I think Jane is very competent in a narrow technical sense, but....”

Few of your enemies would be blunt enough to say, “I think you are a disaster for this organization, and I want you out of it. And there is nothing you can do to change my mind.”

We find the following question of value in helping clients differentiate enemies from adversaries:

Within the last 18 months, can you think of a time when this person was supportive or advanced your objectives?

If the answer is “Yes, but she had an ulterior motivate all along,” then consider the person an adversary. If the answer is “No,” then consider that this person is an enemy.

By subjecting relationships to a consistent standard, our clients have a framework to make an accurate classification. This classification is critical. Once you classify the person as an adversary, you can focus your attention on ways to turn the person into an ally.

Once you classify the person as an enemy, the enemy’s departure is the only positive solution.

2. Failure to Presume Chumship

The default relationship in business is chumship. Friends don’t stab each other in the back. Chums will do so if it serves their interests.

The differentiation between friendship and chumship is a behavioral test over time. For example, Jane was fired and had a sense of betrayal as two work friends no longer returned her calls. In our work with Jane, we ask what is the important lesson to be learned: two people let Jane down versus Jane’s misdiagnosis of two relationships?

3. Trying to Turn Enemies Into Friends

Do not waste scarce time or political capital trying to turn enemies into friends. Enemies tend to remain enemies. As mentioned earlier, enemies provide each other zest, self-definition, and predictability in an unpredictable world.

Leaders cannot avoid making enemies. And they cannot avoid dealing with them. If you must deal with enemies, look at the allies that surround your enemies. Focus on them.

For example, Paula was the Director of a critical P&L Center. She was both angry and depressed when she learned that the CEO had promoted her peer, Ralph, to become her boss. She considered Ralph an enemy and believed the feeling was mutual. Her hostility towards Ralph was confirmed when she asked Ralph how she could be of the best assistance to him during the next 12 months. Ralph’s response was, “First prove yourself to me, and then I’ll tell you.”

Rather than work directly with Ralph, she conveyed to the CEO and the COO that she was displeased with the decision and considered it a signal that she ought to be looking for career opportunities outside the company. She calculated that they would rather she be part of the management team of the company than directly competing against the company at the conclusion of her non-compete agreement.

Paula was transferred to another division.

4. Failure to Nurture Allies

The biggest relationship management failure we see is the failure to nurture allies. Friends do not need to stay connected to be friends. But allies have a contingency relationship. Do not take their future support for granted.

We recommend a systematic “Stay in Touch” program with your top 20 percent allies.

If you use some sort of electronic calendar system, put down an automatic reminder to contact your top 20 percent twice a year. A population of 200 contacts translates to 6-7 phone calls a month. These calls might simply be informal chats to ask how the person is doing. Do not talk about yourself.

You do not want your allies to say, “The only time she calls me is when she needs something.”

How does one determine who is in the top 20 percent?

From a sales-marketing perspective, carefully look at those individuals associated with your five largest sources of revenue over the past 12 months and over the past 36 months. Individuals who authorize the purchase of products or services are directly associated as a source of revenue. But it also is important to look at those allies who were critical in introducing you to these individuals. The network nodes are important gateways.

Suppose you are not in a sales/marketing role. Look at your job’s annual performance objectives and the weights given to those objectives. Can you identify the in-house and external people most closely associated with your success in achieving those objectives? These are your critical allies. Put them into a systematic Stay in Touch program.


Many knowledge workers are precise about diagnosing technical issues at work, yet are intellectually sloppy when diagnosing work relations. Improper diagnosis is like throwing sand into the smoothly running gears of business operations. We have provided a tool for diagnosing work relationships and learning how to manage them effectively.

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