Why that really annoying work nemesis is actually very good for you

A healthy dose of office hatred will spur you on to greater things…

Words by Clare Thorp

As much as were all taught to play nicely and, particularly as women, to support each other wherever we can, even the most placid among us are unlikely to get through our working lives without at least a few people rubbing us up the wrong way.

In fact, research earlier this year by Total Jobs found that 62% of us have a work enemy with a nearly a fifth of us have called in sick to avoid them. But while horrible bosses and workplace bullies can have a damaging effect on our health and performance, there is one type of workplace adversary that can be beneficial to our careers. The nemesis. 

A nemesis is a rival, of sorts. Its that person who snags a job, project or promotion you think should have been yours, gets more recognition than you or just seems to be climbing that ladder a little faster. They might not always be doing better than you, but when they are, it really riles.

You dont hate them as such you might even kind of respect them. But their actions frequently bug you, and bring out the green-eyed monster within.

The writer Roxanne Gay has been tweeting about her (unnamed) nemeses for a few years now, just this summer saying: My nemesis got a job I was in the running for. I had paused plotting against her for the holiday. I wont let that happen again. There, in that last line of her tweet, is the power of a nemesis. It might sound a little ominous but what shes saying is that witnessing her nemesis’ success will spur her on to do better next time. Replying recently to one Twitter follower, Gay recently explained: You dont need to sabotage a nemesis. You want to defeat them through your excellence rather than their failings.

Theres science to back up how having a rival can help you thrive. A US study found that long-distance runners are faster when one of their rivals are in the race. There are also many examples of professional rivalry spurring people on to great things. Bill Gates has said of his well-documented rivalry with the late Steve Jobs that their competition was always a positive thing.Tennis players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have each pushed the other to further greatness.

work nemesis

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Catherine Bunting, Director of HR company Hill & Jago, says finding a nemesis in every job shes had has motivated her throughout her career. I thrive on having a rival,she says. All through my life Ive identified the individuals who are brilliant at what they do and had a drive to do better. A competitor becomes a nemesis if theyre frequently beating me. I suppose its a system of gamification. I think the downside is there is rarely a feeling of contentment.

That having a nemesis can have both bad and good sides is something Aria Guzulaityte, co-founder of Braingic noticed a few years ago, working in a communications role and striving to do better than a colleague. We should have worked side by side but both of us became really competitive,she says. It pushed me to work harder, learn new skills and be more innovative. However, it didnt create a healthy working environment and both of us were really stressed. 

Keeping a healthy attitude towards a nemesis is important, says psychotherapist Claire Goodwin-Fee. Some people thrive when faced with a professional rival,she explains. But its important that we keep sight of our own goals, and dont focus on outdoing someone else just for the sake of it. If we are coming from a place of passion, where we believe in what we are doing, a competitor or rival can push us forward to do more good. But over focusing on a rival professionally can lead to missing other opportunities and creation of an unhealthy imbalance in your working life.

Feeling that twinge of frustration or annoyance at someone elses success can be a helpful indicator of what you really want, she explains. After all, were rarely jealous over things we dont care about.

Jealousy is a fairly negative state of being, psychologically speaking, and that is telling us something on its own,says Goodwin-Fee. Its about a lack of something within us.She recommends journalling as a way of figuring out why someone rattles us and how we can turn that feeling into something positive. Physically writing down how you feel helps us have clarity about why we may feel this way. Brain dump without censor – I really hate Jackie because she is always successful and I am so fed up with feeling this way. You will learn a huge amount about why you feel this way and can use this to inform your next steps.

Frustrated that they get more recognition than you? Work on networking and building your profile. Bummed at everyone congratulating them on a fancy new job title? Set out a plan for getting a promotion or apply for a new role. And when you get it? You never know, they might be secretly seething, too.

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