Workplace Enemies

Feb 29, 2024

Parker Palmer was right when he defined community as “that place where the person you least like is.” What is true for communities in general seems especially true in the workplace.

Just about everyone has someone they work with who drives them nuts. Maybe it is a coworker in a similar position. Harder still when the crazy-making person is a boss or someone “higher up”. These are the folks who can, for a whole variety of reasons, make an otherwise good work day miserable.

In some communities (like church), you can at least make efforts to avoid the people who get on your nerves. But at work it’s harder. Work tends to happen almost every day and unlike volunteer organizations, our assignments can force steady interaction with those we would prefer to avoid. Then we carry them with us in our down time, wasting precious energy on pretend arguments with them in our cars, showers and beds. Nothing makes for a work-weary soul more than a day with a “workplace enemy”.

The Hardest of Teachings

Carmelite nun, Therese de Lisieux, knew much about getting along with others. She writes,

One sister attracts you; another sister – well, you’d go a good long way round to avoid meeting her. Without knowing it, she is your persecuttress… Her behavior to be sure, suggests that she isn’t too fond of me; yes, but ‘What credit is it to you if you love those who love you?’ (from Autobiography of a Saint)

She refers to one of Jesus’ difficult teachings about loving our enemies. On a challenging scale, I’d put this one right up there with trusting God more than money. Just loving your friends is no big deal – anyone can do that, he told his disciples. I’m calling you to love even those people who persecute you. To pray for those who treat you poorly, to do good to those who hate you. (Luke 6)

No problem Jesus. Piece of cake.

Small Steps For Problem Co-Workers

Assuming you were going to try to love your workplace nemesis, I have a few thoughts.

I have always been helped by the distinction between liking and loving. Liking means enjoying being with someone, hanging out with them, sharing interests. That’s hard to imagine when thinking about my enemies.

Loving on the other hand has more to do with respecting, valuing, and treating people with justice and mercy. Loving means trusting that, no matter how outrageous the behavior, this person too carries the image of God. It may involve less time around the water cooler but more prayer. When all is said and done, it is possible to treat someone fairly and respectfully, without liking them.

Loving my enemy at work also does not mean being a doormat. Loving may mean confronting or challenging untruths and inappropriate behavior. Think of Jesus. Pharisees seem to push his buttons. They were constantly making his job harder. When they challenged his healing on the Sabbath or tried to paint him into a theological corner, he didn’t roll over. Rather he challenged them, confronted, and generally refused to let them get in his way. Jesus loved the Pharisees, even died for them, but he didn’t let them sabotage his work.

Enemies as Gifts?

At another church, I was constantly irritated by Steve. Unfortunately, Steve had a position of leadership in the church, so I had to deal with him all the time. Like a boat lashed to a dock in choppy water, we were constantly banging into each other. I remember putting off phone calls, avoiding him whenever possible and spending way too much time in pretend arguments. Sometimes it felt like he lived with me, but Steve and I were not buddies.

Looking back on it, I can see that Steve was a gift to me. Pain in the neck though he was, Steve helped me to grow in ways others could not. This is part of the miracle and mystery of faith, that God can use even our enemies to help us grow. Our enemies help us to know ourselves better – they show us things about ourselves we may not want to see. As our buttons get pushed, we can ask ‘why?’ What is this person revealing to me that needs healing in my life?

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As Jean Vanier writes in Community and Growth, “We can only really love our enemies and all that is broken in them if we begin to love all that is broken in our own beings.” I have found that if I am willing to take an enemy into my prayer life, and simply hold them there, new insights emerge. My antagonists drive me to pray, as I need patience, courage to confront, or help in letting go of fixing them.

The irony of all this praying is that I often start to feel more compassion and less anger toward them. I can’t say I ever grew to like Steve, but I do feel as if eventually I was able to love him. A little anyway.

Whether You Speak or Keep Silent…

Speak in such a way that you can still hear what the other is saying, and that he or she will still be ready to hear you. Whether you speak or keep silent let it proceed from the peace of the Lord. (Rule for a New Brother, Fr. Dr. H. van der Looy)

We will always run into people who push our buttons. If our workplace enemy quits or moves to a new job, a new one will eventually take their place. Call it Murphy’s Law of Community Living, enemies abhorring a vacuum, or the natural result of our living in a fallen world. Learning how to love our enemies is a lifelong call.

There is no one way to deal with enemies, no template that is always the right thing to do in every situation. The best advice might well be that from Dr. van der Looy, to let whatever we do proceed from the peace of the Lord. That is enough.

Written by Doug Wysockey-Johnson  Excerpted from Faith At Work Magazine.  Business Stock photos by Vecteezy  Used by permission. Content distributed by > Used for non-profit teaching purposes only.