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When Bygones Come Around Again

Your job may be new but that doesn't necessarily mean your colleagues will be strangers. How do you handle unfinished business on a new job?

I’m no political naïf  (not by a long shot; spending the first half of my life in Washington, DC, had to be good for something).  But even for these cynical eyes, there was something heartwarming about seeing George Bush and Bill Clinton team up to help the survivors of Haiti.  Especially in these supremely contentious political times, to have these two former opponents now shoulder-to-shoulder with only one thing on their combined minds  -- to bring what’s best about America to relieve the suffering of the earthquake survivors.

This got me to thinking.  What’s it really like when old bad blood must be set aside for the sake of a current, common cause?  Here we have two former rivals who once spent countless of millions of dollars (well, I hope someone was counting) and millions of American hours to persuade the nation to vote one way instead of the other.  And now they’re expected to join forces, pool their resources, and convince the world that they’re seeing eye-to-eye on Haiti? 

Bush and Clinton are big boys. They’ll make it happen.  But let’s take this same scenario, reduce the scope a little bit, and imagine what it would be like when old workplace rivals – really personal rivals – are forced to work together again in a new workplace setting.  Only one word comes to mind here: Awkward.

Here’s a real life example from my own personal files:  A few years ago, a young friend of mind was just launching her career (you know that hair-trigger time when the first boss you pick could determine your future for decades to come?).  The problem here is that her first boss had himself a bit of a drinking problem. At least that was the conclusion that she and her coworkers came to as a result of this guy’s pattern of holing up in his office every afternoon, the sound of his desk drawer opening and closing (usually in the time it takes to down a shot), and the smell wafting out from under the door ‘round about 3:30.

My friend couldn’t get away from this guy fast enough. Before too long she found a new job.  But, unfortunately, it turns out she wasn’t the only one looking for a job. And within just a couple of weeks a memo circulated around her new office welcoming yet another new employee as well.  Guess who.  Again, one word: Awkward.  (As shocking and disappointing it was to her to receive the memo, can you imagine what it must have been like for him to run into her in the halls? This poor guy was looking for a fresh start too.)

We have millions of job seekers looking for a fresh start.  And when the economy rolls around again, we’re going to have millions more seeking to upgrade their working situation, hopefully with a fresh bunch of new faces – none of whom who knew you, uhm, before.  

Well, I’m no mathematician, but I’d still say that the law of averages has it that some of you are bound to reposition yourselves only to find yourselves sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with at least one person you would really prefer never having to see again.  It’s a small world. And if you work in a very specific industry, it’s an even smaller world.  If you work in a small town, like, say, Washington, DC, well, you can just forget any dream of leaving a cringeable past firmly where it belongs.

All those people you would never want to see again? Ta da!! This is why your mother told you never to burn bridges.

So what do you do when you find yourself working with people you were hoping never to see again?  Assuming we’re talking run-of-the-mill losers or former antagonists here (and not alcoholic drivers of school buses), your discretion could be the key to both your new successes.

Get that you are on the same team now. It’s a whole new game, new rules, new toys, new players.  Professional sports teams are able to trade players all the time. Old grudges are rarely visible from the stands.  So take on the attitude that the scoreboard has been wiped clean, and your old nemesis is now your teammate.  All those "evil powers" you witnessed in the past could actually be used for the good of the team now. You know better than anyone else how this person operates. You can use that knowledge to everyone’s advantage, not just your own.

Assume your antagonist would really like to just focus on the future. You’re not the only one who has arrived at this new job after a long, hard trial of patience, endurance and not a little bit of anxiety.  These last few years have been humbling experiences for all of us.  The old competition between the two of you could be feeling so beside the point right now. Give both of yourselves a chance for a fresh start.

If this person was your vicious arch enemy in your previous positions and could conceivably ruin your life just because he or she can, you may need to take a more proactive approach.  If there is any trust at all left between you, a private meeting or lunch away from the office might be very helpful in laying down new ground rules that the two of you can agree on. Hopefully that person might be assigned to a different department, so your own success won’t depend so much on his or her cooperation.  But if you find yourselves on the same team in this new job, you might consider letting a third party know what your history was.  Not to tattle or wreck the other person’s chance of success.  But just to share really relevant information that could impact your entire team’s success.  Don’t go gunning for your previous enemy. No matter what your personal feelings are about this person, remember it really is a new game, and you two are now on the same side.  You will be sharing your failures and successes from here on out.

Let’s say you’re the meanie and that other person should be worried about you.  Really? Do you really need to take a dog-eat-dog MO into your new job opportunity?  I won’t try to tell you that being a vicious back-stabber isn’t one path to success. It is.  But remember, that person has the goods on you. And what goes around really does come around.

Do yourselves a favor and take a page from the Bush/Clinton (or Clinton/Bush) playbook.  If they can set aside the past and focus on nobler, more immediate, goals, so can you.

And playing nice is a skill set that can take you anywhere.