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In Praise of the Office Frenemy


If you’re a reasonable person — and let’s assume that you are — you probably don’t expect to love every single one of your co-workers. On the other hand, unless you’re a terrible pessimist, or having a really rough patch in your career, you probably also don’t expect to hate them all, either. Now, a new study argues that perhaps your most valuable co-worker is the one who inspires both positive and negative emotions in somewhat equal measure: the office frenemy, if you will. Here’s why you need the folks you (occasionally) love to hate.

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(Photo Credit: Panegyrics of Granovetter/Flickr)

At Harvard Business Review, Shimul Melwani, assistant professor of organizational behavior University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Naomi Rothman, assistant professor of management at Lehigh University, outline their recent studies of ambivalent co-worker relationships:

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“In two studies, a laboratory experiment in which we mimicked ambivalent relationships (as well as positive relationships for comparison) and a survey of consultants, we found that ambivalent relationships were indeed just that — ambivalent: neither all positive nor all negative, but rather both. Participants in our two studies who experienced ambivalent relationships were more likely to engage in perspective-taking as well as motivate themselves to succeed in both the task they were facing as well as in their organizational relationships.”

Melwani and Rothman note, however, that not everything about having a frenemy co-worker is positive. Their research showed that ambivalent relationships with colleagues produced envy, guilt, and a tendency to ruminate. It’s not a stretch to imagine that too many of these types of co-worker relationship would eventually produce negative effects to overwhelm the positive ones. It’s hard to be productive when you’re stressed out all the time.

Having a few frenemies, on the other hand, was associated with higher motivation and a tendency to seek to understand the other’s perspective.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about these people, and so we spend a lot of time thinking about their position,” Melwani told The Science of Us. “You’re constantly putting yourself in their position just to make it easier for you yourself to understand. …You engage in a lot of social comparisons — so that’s very motivating, because you want to perform better than them. We don’t engage in as much social comparison with friends, and you’d imagine you’d engage in social comparison with enemies but we actually just avoid them — they’re so far from who we want to be we don’t even engage with them.”

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think office frenemies are valuable? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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