How to deal with frenemies in business

“For years, I was never sure if we were friends or not. She would come up to me... and say something and walk away, and I would think, ‘Are we friends, or did she just give me the harshest insult of my life?’” - Taylor Swift, 2014, Rolling Stone

You know the feeling. That sickening feeling when you realize that someone is putting you down in order to try to prop him or her self up.

Now, when I see it happening, my immediate reaction is to feel sorry for the person. Someone who resorts to that kind of behavior is not happy, confident, and kind.

In general, people don’t change much. And you can tell a lot about a person's destiny by looking at their actions in the present.

It would be a lot easier if you could just stop interacting with frenemies whenever you encounter them. However, a lot of times, it’s not that easy. 

We read about years-long rivalries amongst leaders in business all the time, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who have been described as “the ultimate frenemies”. We read about entire nations operating as frenemies for decades.

Frenemies can affect the big picture and the long term. So, knowing how to deal with frenemies is important for business. You might run in the same industry circles. You might even have to partner up in order to accomplish something that both of you want (as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates eventually did). 

Here’s how to deal with a frenemy in business (as well as in life in general):

1. Identify the frenemy

This can be the hardest part -- to distinguish between a friend and a frenemy.

Here is my rule of thumb: A frenemy is willing to hurt you in order to further his or her own agenda.

Friends can disagree about things. They can drift apart and drift together again. They will change over time. But they will not hurt you in order to further their own agendas, whatever they might be.

In contrast, frenemies don’t mind attacking you, whether it’s behind your back or to your face, in order to give themselves a boost. They might pretend to be be friendly, but what they are really interested in is their own agendas, even at your expense.

2. Know the frenemy’s insecurity

There is a reason why frenemies act the way that they do. It is almost always driven by an insecurity. Figure out the frenemy’s primary insecurity, and you will have the key to predicting their actions in the future.

You can’t really take someone else’s insecurities personally. So, it’s easier to brush off someone’s jabs when you know, for example, that this particular frenemy is insecure about being not being as successful as he'd like, and that he will resort to saying almost anything in an effort to prop himself up.

A person who is willing to hurt people and warp the truth because of his or her insecurity is hard for anyone to take seriously. So, if a frenemy like that takes a swipe at you, then you can just brush it off, because you already know their status (frenemy) and their primary insecurity (which is their problem, not yours).

3. Focus on your goal

I don’t really believe in wasting energy on hating people or having straight-up enemies. You never know when you might have to team up with someone for a purpose that is bigger than you both.

Life brings lots of surprises, and it's hard to predict when mutual interests will end up overlapping. What would the world be like today if the United States and Russia hadn’t teamed up against Nazi Germany during World War II? Disaster.

So, forget wasting time and energy on hate, and focus on making your goals your primary focus. Whether you choose to maintain distance with your frenemies or collaborate on occasion, defining them as frenemies and knowing their insecurities will help you succeed in the environment that you share.


It helps to have a framework in place when dealing with frenemies:

  1. Identify the frenemy
  2. Know the frenemy’s insecurity, and
  3. Focus on your goal

Above all, don’t let their problems become your problems.

How do you deal with frenemies?