Spy vs. Spy: How To Work Alongside Sabotaging Colleagues

Spy vs. Spy is a comic strip that was first published in 1961 by Mad Magazine.

The comic always featured two spies—both completely identical, except for the fact that one dressed in white and the other dressed in black.

The feuding pair endeared audiences with their flimsy tricks, transparent cons, and flawed attempts to ensnare one another in mortal danger. Just like the black and white colors of their jumpsuits, Spy vs. Spy usually ended in an alternating victory for one and defeat for the other.

As kids, you could also play the Spy vs. Spy game, where—embodying one of the two spies—you would try to collect items in an embassy while booby trapping desks, doors, and safes for the other player to stumble over. Today, among a newer generation, you can play Spy vs. Spy on your iPhone.

The characters of this epic feud were, nonetheless, charming and often ridiculous. However, the underlying premise for this creation by Antonio Prohias was not so lighthearted.

While the rivalry continued each week in the 1960s for Spy vs. Spy, simultaneously, two other nemeses battled it out in the real world. The equally clandestine fight between the Fidel Castro regime and the CIA (who made constant attempts to oust Castro) was the underlining political satire for this cloak-and-dagger comic.

While it’s an understatement, perhaps, to say the U.S. disliked the Castro regime, the idea that—in the international political economy—countries must work alongside foreign rivals and enemies is a reality. In the microeconomic environment, like within a firm, this reality holds true once again.

So what do you do when you are forced to work with somebody you don’t like (and you don’t have a fuse-led canon ball to toss their direction)?

Peter Bregman, strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams and author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, wondered the same thing.

He reflected in the Harvard Business Review Blog, “I’m not simply talking about someone who frustrates you because they communicate poorly or can’t run a meeting. Sure it’s annoying to have your time wasted, especially when you believe you could do a better job. But that’s different than disliking them. Just think about how you respond differently to someone you like who can’t run a meeting (you want to help them) versus someone you don’t like (you want to stop working with them, or, if the meeting is really long, kill them).”

For Bregman, it seems logical that the reason you can’t stand certain colleagues in the office is because those people remind you of the worst version of yourself.

For example, your peer in question may be greedy, snagging all the best assignments, or dismissive to others’ ideas. Are those traits that you dislike in yourself? Are you, perhaps, a case or client hog? Do you tend to reject new ideas in favor of your own?

Identifying the characteristics you dislike in another person—specifically in terms of workplace habits or production—is the first step in identifying and correcting your own professional flaws.

Bregman believes that if you overcome the dislike you have for yourself, you’ll eventually learn to love that somebody else in the office.

“Being compassionate with yourself is the key to being compassionate with others,” sagely advises Bregman.

“Before you know it, you’ll actually begin to like people you never liked before. Maybe you’ll even feel like helping them run those meeting more productively.”

And, research shows that the workplace is more productive and profitable when employees like one other.

It’s almost as if Bregman was channeling Spy vs. Spy when he concludes, “Can you admit to yourself that it’s not black or white? It’s black and white. Can you live with the complexity of your humanness? That’s the key to being compassionate with yourself.”

So, keep a running list of your best and worst professional traits. Try to increase the good and downplay the bad. Take a look at your list each morning (or hang it in an obvious place at home) to remind yourself that tact, ethics, reserve, patience, and charisma require practice and honing each day.

Now, hopefully, whenever a colleague gets on your last nerve, you can use the event as fodder for obfuscating your own flaws instead of pointing to theirs. In fact, you may discover that embracing your dark side brings out the best and brightest of your ideas at work.

“I can be self-serving and egotistical and self-satisfied. It’s still hard to admit that—especially in writing—but it’s a part of who I am and, in the right doses, it actually serves me well,” says Bregman.

Spy vs. Spy may still be at odds with one another, but as it turns out, you can come to terms with the utility of both the sinister and bright qualities of your own behavior.

-WB

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