I have an idea for a new film. A film that would serve as an antidote to the feel-good Finding Nemo. It has the provisional title of Finding Nemesis.
The story revolves around an angry minnow who is perpetually seething at the fact that they have been thrown out of a shortlisted pool in Sydney, leaving them obliged to swim against the tide in a constant struggle in the murkier waters of Queensland. They are left battered in an Ipswich fish shop and have a chip on their shoulder. But then they decide to return to confront their nemesis, who for decidedly fishy reasons has always managed to hook the roles they themselves desired.
Having a nemesis at work is not a funny business.
Workplace rivalries may have a comedic quality – they can appear thoroughly amusing from the outside – but they are no fun for the fall guy. And they are far more common than we assume, unless we assume that the workplace is populated by members of parliament. I confess a childish weakness for the blood sport of watching politicians tear down leaders, probably because I am removed from that workplace. But being in the middle of it is probably not much of a laugh.
The rival I have in mind is someone who always seems to get the promotion, or the gig, that you wanted. To your way of thinking, they get the breaks and, in doing so, rob you of opportunities to advance and shine. They are your rival. And now it is war.
It can be difficult to avoid believing that your rival’s success is unwarranted. In the process of rebuilding or maintaining our self-belief in the face of coming second, choosing to believe the other person was chosen on grounds other than ability helps us to avoid confronting inconvenient truths about our own abilities. However, it is even more frustrating if we have solid evidence that our rival has won due to job-irrelevant factors, or worse, nefarious means. It is not hard to see how workplace politics begin with the spreading of rumours or smears. If your rival is underhanded, they may be getting ahead because they play the political game better than you do and have been busily white-anting you.
The problem with rivals and our emotional reactions is that we can continually waver between competing accounts of reality – either that we were beaten fair and square or that we were stitched up. Yet how we respond to events can have a critical bearing on our career trajectory. We have all seen underachievers consumed with jealously and hate, convincing themselves and then setting out to convince all who will listen that the game is rigged and therefore not worth playing. Such self-saboteurs can be career poison if you get too close to them.
Rarely is the best career response to missing out a matter of giving up. Learning to be more strategic is usually better than trying over and over again. This may involve various changes in personal approach, including paddling your canoe into fresh waters to avoid direct competition. It may involve sharpening up your act at work. After all, with the right attitude, rivals can be motivating. Generally speaking, it is better at work to swim in your own lane than to make anemone of your rival.
Jim Bright, FAPS, is the professor of career education and development at Australian Catholic University and owns the career management consultancy Bright and Associates.
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