Read a few pages from any of the high-profile exposés of Donald Trump that were published last year, and whatever your political persuasion, you might find what’s most revealing isn’t their picture of the man himself — who comes across much as he does on Twitter and in the news — but of the White House staffers and office-holders scuffling, backstabbing and bad mouthing each other in his orbit. In his book Fear, to grab an example off the shelf, Bob Woodward has Steve Bannon yelling, “You’re nothing but a fucking staffer!” during a shouting match with Ivanka in the spring of 2016. Later, he quotes then National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster saying of then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: “He’s such a prick. He thinks he’s smarter than anyone. So he thinks he can do his own thing.” And in Fire and Fury Michael Wolff reports on new NSC member Dina Powell being jealously appraised by presidential advisor Katie Walsh, who says, “She will expose herself as totally incompetent.”
What’s most striking about the fireworks on display in this highest of office politics isn’t how weird and outlandish it all seems, but how mundane and familiar. It’s unsettling just how often the White House in these books sounds so much like a couple of places I’ve worked over the years. And it tends to confirm my suspicion that all workplaces, no matter how elevated, are driven as much by enmity as teamwork. Even in the most balmy and serene office climates, everyone, it seems, seizes on their own work nemesis — and deep dislike can develop for a wide variety of reasons.
These include passive aggression. “I don’t think he even knows he’s my nemesis,” says Cathy, who works for an international charity. “We get along well at a superficial level, and he’s not a problem to work with as long as you agree with him — but if not, he’ll cut you out of the project and go over your head.”
Or sheer incompetence. “Ultimately I felt bad for her because the company moved her out of a job she knew how to do into a product manager role she had no clue about,” says Georgia, who is also product manager at a digital agency. “Her main thing was withholding the information I needed about the things I had to work on — deliberately not telling me stuff so I’d look stupid, or like I didn’t understand things in all the meetings she made us join. Which were nearly all unnecessary anyway. She was basically a child; she’d throw tantrums. It was traumatic for both of us.”
“But,” says Cathy, finding the silver lining to her own cloud of passive aggression, “I prefer work when you have an enemy — as long as other people hate them too. Because it’s good for team morale to have someone to moan about. It’s got to the point now where if he behaves reasonably in a meeting I’m slightly disappointed.”
Unhappy to Be Stuck with You
Often, the personality flaws and obnoxious habits of workplace antagonists are quirks we’d readily forgive in friends or family members. So why is it that when they occur in co-workers they have a special power to get under our skin? “The workplace is a unique situation,” says Deep Patel, serial entrepreneur and author of A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success. “People who might get along fine in social situations may grate on each other when they’re obliged to spend at least 40 hours a week working in the same office. Add stress, deadline pressures and daily workloads to the mix, and you can see how that can bring out people’s aggressive or combative sides.”
The workplace demands a different set of social skills from us, too. Patel uses the example of roommates who “probably all get along pretty well when they go out or are just hanging out. But when they have to figure out bills and who does which household chores, it can add strain to the relationship because everybody does things differently.”
Unlike roommates, whom we can shut the door whenever we choose, we can feel as though we’re trapped with a bad colleague indefinitely, which amplifies our negative feelings toward them. “Co-workers can only avoid each other so much,” says Patel. “They still need to show up to meetings and interact with each other on projects and tasks. There aren’t a lot of escape valves in the workplace, and that can be pretty frustrating when you’re forced to work with someone who has toxic personality traits.”
In its most extreme form, this is what lends pathos to what’s surely the most tragic form of failed working relationship: The comedy double act gone sour. If you think being locked into a spiral of mutual disdain with your arch rival nine-to-five feels like a prison sentence, spare a thought for the great Abbott and Costello, who fell out in spectacular and public style over a housemaid in 1945 and then continued bitterly making movies and comedy appearances together for a further 12 years; and for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, who had a similar dead-eyed disregard for each other off-screen for a whole decade (Martin famously once told Lewis, “To me, you’re nothing but a fucking dollar sign”); and for the British duo Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, who weren’t on speaking terms at the height of their light-entertainment fame in the mid 1980s — and whose truer-than-it-sounded catchphrase was, “Deep down, you really hate me, don’t you?”
Snobbery Leads to Hate. Hate Leads to the Dark Side…
So we can’t escape their boring, pointless emails or their stupid, evil, gormless faces, but can we at least lessen the impact our incompatible colleagues have on so much of our waking lives? Getting off on the right foot with people — even those we sense are going to bug us for all eternity — is a good start. Especially if someone’s coming new to a job, advises Patel, they should always resist the temptation to “play office politics and attempt to build relationships with people they think can help them get ahead.” For Patel, this is a sign that “they’re heavy on ‘taking’ and light on ‘giving,’” and liable to forget that “work is about building collaborative relationships.”
“Even worse are the people who disregard anyone they see as being beneath them on the work totem pole,” he continues. “You should be treating everyone with the same level of consideration and respect — including those who may fall under you in your company’s rank structure.”
This is a Jedi mind trick that, according to the late Kenny Baker (the diminutive actor who played R2-D2 in the first six Star Wars movies), co-star Anthony Daniels (who plays C-P3O) never quite got the hang of. In an interview with the British newspaper Metro in 2009, Baker described himself as “the happiest dwarf in Europe” despite not making millions from the franchise, before rounding on his gold-plated co-star: “I thought it was just me he didn’t get on with but recently I’ve found out he doesn’t get on with anyone.” Baker, who died in 2016, lamented the fact that “we could make a fortune touring around making personal appearances. I’ve asked him four times now, but the last time, he looked down his nose at me like I was a piece of shit. He said, ‘I don’t do many of these conventions — go away little man.’”
Managing an Undeserved Superiority Complex
Closely related to snobbery as a wellspring of workmate hate are those situations where one colleague fails to hide their belief that the other person sucks at their job. In the autobiography of the German soccer player Stefan Effenberg, belligerently called I Showed Them All, the controversial star included a chapter about his legendary teammate, with whom he shared a locker room for years in both international and club teams, entitled “What Lothar Matthäus Knows About Football.” Cuttingly, the chapter consisted of a single blank page.
Another, particularly awkward example of habitual co-worker belittling emerged during a New York Times interview with the cast of the Netflix sitcom Arrested Development in May 2018. The group conversation became emotional when Jeffrey Tambor (who plays patriarch George Bluth in the show) was asked about his reputation for angrily yelling at co-stars, directors and crew members, which provoked a tearful response in Jessica Walter (who plays his wife, Lucille): “In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.” Following his over-eager efforts to smooth over the moment, co-star Jason Bateman later apologized on Twitter following the publication of the article, for misreading the longstanding tension between his two colleagues.
In dealing with disparities in competency, whether it’s you or the other person who believes they have the higher ground, the key thing, says Patel, is to not air your grievances in public. “What really matters is the work you’re doing and the results you’re getting. In order to be effective as a leader (or as someone who wants to be a leader), you should have relationships with people at all levels of your business.”
Resisting the Lure of Passive Aggression
Most of us don’t go in for outbursts in team meetings. Instead, when dealing with undesirables at work, passive aggression is often the more natural response. “The workplace is rife with passive aggressiveness,” says Patel. “It’s how we mask our anger and frustration with those we work with. When you send a terse email instead of talking to someone in person; withhold important information to try to make someone else look bad (or you look good); or put in the bare-minimum effort but no more, you’re engaging in passive aggressive behavior.”
This is usually a super-effective way of escalating the tension on both sides, of course, so it’s to be avoided. “We might feel like we’re being slighted, but we don’t have a good way of making our feelings known without expressing anger,” explains Patel. Rather than the silent treatment, he recommends “working on being assertive, but not aggressive. Stay calm, but say how you feel. Channel Spock from Star Trek: You’re trying to express your feelings in the most logical way possible.”
Except, this might not be the best example. While they became firm friends in later years (until, tragically, right up until the last five years of Nimoy’s life), Leonard Nimoy (who played Spock) and William Shatner (Captain Kirk) had a rocky relationship throughout the original three seasons of Star Trek. Shatner was rankled by Spock’s ever-growing fanbase, while Nimoy was peeved by his co-star’s habit of stealing his lines, as well as, most illogically, his bicycle (something which Shatner has admitted to). As his ego on set grew, Shatner made enemies of other cast members, too. George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, is reported to have said, “People ask me what it’s like to work with Bill Shatner. I tell them, imagine being tied to a chair with a man in uniform behind you heaping abuse and humiliation upon you. But in the bad way.”
Enemies with Benefits
But what about when there’s little that’s passive about your adversary’s mode of aggression? As rehashed in Ryan Murphy’s FX show Feud, the famous running battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? turned physical: Davis is said to have hit Crawford in the head for real during one fight scene, and Crawford retaliated in another — in which Davis was to drag her across the floor — by loading her costume with weights, causing her rival to damage her back in the process.
Unsurprisingly, lashing back isn’t a recommended strategy when confronted with real aggressive behavior at work. “If you’ve reached boiling point with an office bully or backstabber, it’s important that you stay calm,” says Patel. “Don’t react defensively and don’t return anger with anger. Allowing things to devolve into a shouting match is only going to cast you in a negative light.” But while walking away is always an option, it might not be the best one. “If you can take a breath and stay calm, then it’s usually best to take control and face the situation right then, in the moment.”
In general, he advises, “conflict avoidance is a bad idea in most relationships. If you can address things as they come up and deal with them in a straightforward but caring manner — while truly listening to the other person’s concerns — then you can build solid relationships that will weather any storm.”
Aside from their potential benefits in team-bonding, and while they may be unpleasant, antagonistic working relationships aren’t always a disaster. Getting up at 5 a.m. each day to face a shift on camera with Piers Morgan must be a grueling experience, but his Good Morning Britain co-host Susanna Reid has turned their testy on-screen partnership into a popular feature of the show, developing a winning shtick of unrestrained derision in response to his frequent interruptions and stream-of-consciousness monologues:
(That said, he hasn’t been seen on the show for a while…)
And in possible good news for President Trump’s current White House team, politics is another area in which famously frosty collaborations have occasionally led to success. In 1994, two future U.K. Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, formulated a plan to tag-team their way to power despite their mutual distrust. During the 10 years Blair occupied 10 Downing Street, wariness evolved into loathing as Brown accused Blair of breaking many of the terms of their pact — including the one where he had promised to hand over the top job after two terms in office. When Blair reneged on that by fighting a third election in 2005, a furious Brown told him, “There is nothing that you could say to me now that I could ever believe.” Yet Brown’s dogged staying power paid off as two years later his rival resigned and he was finally made Prime Minister — just in time for the global financial crisis of 2008.
The lesson here, perhaps, is that devoting any of your life-hours to trying to defeat your work nemesis, or even to winning them over, is going to be a bad investment. Instead, concentrate on limiting their ability to irk you as much as possible and step away from the voodoo doll. “The golden rule should be to treat everyone with civility and work to control your anger and frustration no matter who you’re dealing with,” says Patel, though he admits that’s probably easier said than done. “If all else fails, and you feel like you’re ready to boil over, remember this: You’ll never regret something you never said.”