As the saying goes, you should keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. 

We’ve all encountered workplace rivalry: a colleague who feels threatened by your skills or expertise; a jealous boss who steals your recognition for a job well done as his own; or a subordinate who undermines your authority. 

These detractors each have their own motivations for their rivalry, and much of the time the reasons are to do with their own inadequacies. But not every villain is found out so easily, and it can escalate into a problem for you, your team or your business. The most effective leaders though will use such adversarial behaviour to their advantage; they will turn their rivals into collaborators.

Why should you collaborate with your enemies?

The idea of cooperating with your antagonists sounds preposterous. They are your rivals; why would you want them close to you? But when you get close to them, it gives you knowledge. And as we all know from another well-known idiom, knowledge is power. 

Keeping your adversaries close allows you to keep an eye on them and look out for and curb any vengeful or damaging actions on their part. 

As you learn more about your rival, you better understand their capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. You can appreciate how best to work with them, or can use their skills or knowledge to your advantage - whether that’s personal advantage or for the benefit of the company as a whole.

Keeping your rival close can teach you a lot about yourself and can improve your own performance. Your friends are likely to flatter you and tell you what they think you want to hear. Being told your ideas are great and that your latest strategy is perfect will not help you or the company. Conversely, our rivals tend to tell us about our more negative aspects. You have no reason to try to impress your rival, so you can work with them objectively. Because you know that they oppose you, you will undoubtedly find your naturally competitive nature comes to the fore when dealing with them, and this can create inspiration, innovation and ideas.

How can you keep your enemies close?

The Harvard Business Review has an ingenious method for turning your adversaries into your allies. Termed the 3Rs, the approach allows you to rebuild connections that were once adversarial. In doing so, you create a new, innovative direction for the relationship and for the organisation. 

The 3Rs are:


The first step is to redirect your rival’s negative feelings. You need to divert their animosity away from you. One way to do this might be to meet up - perhaps on neutral territory - and to demonstrate that you are not the source of the rivalry. It may be circumstances or another person, or even the company itself that has caused the situation between you. If perhaps the animosity stems from you being promoted above them, then this is a good approach. You can show how the company has put you in this predicament by promoting you. If there is no obvious other person or situation to steer your foe’s negativity towards, then you can redirect the hostility by sharing and talking about something you have in common. Or you can show deference by undertaking a seemingly inferior activity to diffuse tension.


The next stage is reciprocity. Here, you need to give something first, before taking or receiving something in return. Choose to give something that does not need much effort from your enemy if they were to reciprocate it. It also helps if what you give alleviates their antagonism at the same time. Perhaps you can involve them in a project they wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of. Or you could stay late to assist them in meeting an important deadline. Both the company and the team benefit from the additional effort and the adversary will feel more inclined to reciprocate your gesture. 


By now, you have created the beginnings of a relationship. So that you don’t appear dishonest or disingenuous, you next need to use rationality to manage the expectations of your new, collaborative relationship. In letting your new ally know that you need or value them or their input, you make your approach more rational and special.

Following this method will help you to forge stronger, more valuable relationships out of rivalry and detraction. You won’t become instant best friends, but you will each be more inclined to work together for the common good. And this will bring a more beneficial working relationship, and will build a more efficient and effective business as a result.

You may always have rivals. But learning to forgive their grudges and resentments and embracing the 3Rs method will grow more peaceable relationships and will benefit you, your career and your company immeasurably.

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About The Author

Mel is the Digital Marketing Manager at breatheHR. She regularly contributes insights into current SME and HR trends as well as reporting on breatheHR news and updates.