The office nemesis and how to move on

The co-worker you love to hate may never be your friend, but he may be your brother.

The final season of NBC’s The Office is well underway, and thus, so is the ninth and final round of the greatest ever faceoff between a man and his workplace nemesis. While Jim Halpert is the cleverer of the two, the dim and egotistical Dwight Schrute may emerge the unlikely winner, if only because he scored the show’s only spinoff: The Farm.

Everyone has an office nemesis, though in real life, this fantastically annoying person rarely does anything as laugh-worthy as suspending your stapler inside a block of Jell-O. I’d been at my first job a year when my arch-rival was hired; he began stepping on my toes during his first week. Literally. He once stepped on and continued to stand on the toes of my right foot as he handed me a report I had written, while asking, “Do you think this is kind of weak?” in a tone suggesting he honestly wanted to know what I thought.


The question is, what should one do with the urge to step on our nemeses faces? “You develop your muscles working against an opposing force,” says Calgary-based executive coach Pat Pitsel. “You can either whine about it or grow from it.” In other words, Pitsel thinks a healthy competitive spirit is a positive thing. But she might not understand just how deep these rivalries run.

Don Carveth, an emeritus professor at York University and a practising psychoanalyst, dusted off some Freudian theory for me, suggesting that the office nemesis could be a case of transference. “We are all wandering around with a tendency to find and repeat our earliest relationships,” he says. Traditionally, transference is described as refinding problems with your father or mother in your partner, but Dr. Carveth says in the past decade, analysts have increasingly focused on the effects of sibling rivalry. This, he says, is most apropos to the irritation one’s nemesis incites.

The real reason I felt enraged by my toe stepper, transference suggests, is that I’m still burned by the fact my sister got more attention because she was louder and more opinionated. Which, even if she was also punished more, is essentially true.

The path to reducing the power of your nemesis, then, is actually an inner one. “Every once in a while, one encounters someone who is actually very similar to their brother,” Dr. Carveth explains, “but usually the transference involves a considerable degree of distortion.” Dr. Carveth suggests shouting to oneself: “I’ve confused my co-worker with my damn brother, but he’s not my brother!” Of course, this is really psychologist shorthand for the lengthy process of going into one’s emotional memory files and teasing out the situations where you might be over-interpreting—not misinterpreting, mind you—your dear nemesis’s behaviour.

That said, if you were to actually shout this at your nemesis, it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’ll leave you alone for a while.

THE LONG GAME: John Ive Wins Again

Think office rivalries are the domain of the drones? The recent news that Jonathan Ive will assume iOS chief Scott Forstall’s duties at Apple offers a C-suite example. It was an open secret that Forstall had a competitive relationship with Ive. (Ive put the handle on the iMac and the big button on the iPod; Forstall designed the iPhone’s software and, fatally, replaced Google Maps with Apple’s homebrew wreck.) Both were considered Steve Jobs’s pet favourites. Fifteen years in, Ive can now raise his fist in victory.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks