In my first job I had a friendly colleague who was also an annoying competitor. Friend and foe: one frenemy† If I arrived at the office nice and early, he would already be there. If I made a proposal for an article, he had a better idea. But at the same time, we shared the same interests and had the best conversations. A difficult relationship.
Many people have these kinds of frenemies at work. The sympathetic rival, as in my example. The colleague who listens to you so well, but then gossips about you. Or the lounger who makes others pay for the work, but with whom you can always have a good laugh.
Very different people, who have in common that they evoke positive and negative emotions in you. Normally, you wouldn’t have a relationship with them, but the work condemns you to each other.
Frenemy relationships in the work environment have pros and cons. First the negative side. According to psychologists Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Bert Uchino frenemies are quite stressful: more so than someone who is just friend or foe. This is because of the ambivalent relationship we have with them and the uncertainty and tension this causes. The stress can then lead to health problems and absenteeism at work.
Frenemy relationships also offer benefits. This way, fellow competitors can make you pay more attention to your work or try new things. Although that too is often accompanied by extra stress. According to researchers Shimul Melwani and Naomi Rothman frenemy relationships can also increase empathy. It is precisely the ambivalence in the relationship that leads us to try to empathize with the other more often and more intensively. That way you look at situations at work from more angles and that in turn leads to better decisions.
How can we make our frenemies help us more than hinder us? The researchers I mentioned also give some tips.
Consciously work with frenemies. Certainly when there is some rivalry, this can lead to special results. In the meantime you get to know each other better, which can reduce the tension.
Try to avoid each other if working with your frenemy causes too much stress. Or in your dealings with them, avoid the subjects that lead to the most tension.
Try to appreciate the diversity in your work environment. Realize that everyone has frenemies and you are probably one for a few co-workers too.
My own experience is that an open conversation can also help. Be honest about what concerns you. Pretty exciting, but it’s what I ended up doing with that colleague in my first job. After a few months with a lot of stress on my side.
Over a cup of coffee outside the office, he then casually told me that he had no ambition at all to continue working for this magazine. It had long been clear to him that his future lay elsewhere. A while later he left.
I felt relieved. And at the same time I missed my frenemy a bit.
Ben Tiggelaar writes weekly about personal leadership, work and management.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of May 14, 2022