Are you ‘working with the enemy’?

Working with the Enemy by Mike Leibling- pic from

I am currently reading ‘Working with the Enemy’ by Mike Leibling. While ‘enemy’ certainly does not apply to any of the people I work with there are some excellent tips in this book about how we might choose to deal with challenging people. We will always have a colleague that we find difficult or someone whose personality just doesn’t ‘click’ with our own, so here are a few of Mike’s tips with some personal anecdotes thrown in:

Ask ‘How’ not ‘Why’

Claire worked in an organisation where her colleagues in operations were struggling to trust the judgement of their colleagues in finance. A consultant was brought in to uncover the reasons for mistrust. He advised the finance team to ask the operations team for the reasons outright, so they could be honest and open with each other. However, when the finance manager asked “So why don’t you trust us then?” he was met with bewilderment. He blamed the consultant. But when giving his advice, the consultant had phrased the question very differently: “How could we work together to build trust between us?” When the finance manager tried again, using ‘how’ and not ‘why’, solutions were found and everyone felt better about the situation.

Be specific, don’t generalise

A friend of mine is guilty of doing this all the time. Oh whoops, I just did it myself!

My friend is not guilty of generalising all the time, but has done so on a number of occasions, most recently while we were discussing the merits of her previous boss who she said, “always shouted at me in front of everyone else”. In fact her boss had done this once and once alone but she couldn’t get passed it. She’d turned a specific occasion into a ‘way of being’ that resulted ultimately in her leaving her job.

If you need to give feedback to someone on something you’ve found offensive or unfair, refer to a specific occasion otherwise they won’t be able to agree with you and you’ll find it very hard to move forward.

Be clear on who you are trying to benefit

The decisions you make at work should be for the benefit of the organisation in achievement of its corporate objectives (unless it’s to do with something illegal or unethical of course). You should not make decisions based on selfish outcomes, for example, as Andrew once said to me in reference to not logging a customer complaint: “But it’s less work for me that way”.

Another plus point to remembering who are trying to benefit, is that pointing this out to colleagues makes for a very strong argument. Who can disagree with something that is a corporate priority? But be mindful of using this too often as you could become known as someone who thinks their own work is more important than others. Someone did this to me recently and it really got my back up.

Speak their language

Gemma used to work for someone who used the word ‘strategic’ a lot. There could have been many reasons for this- maybe it made her boss feel good about himself? Gemma found that if she needed to discuss workload with him, or explain why she’d made particular decisions, if she used the word ‘strategic’ back to him, he was much more likely to take her opinions on board.

Listen to the words your ‘difficult people’ use and use them yourself when you’re talking with them. I bet you’ll see a difference.

There are many more tips in Leibling’s book and I’ll share some more of them soon. If you’ve had an experience with a difficult person and you need to find a way forward, let me know and I’ll see if I can help.


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