The importance of ‘frenemies’ at work

The social landscape of the workplace can be a complex domain to navigate.  Whilst it can seem straightforward when you talk about those who you either get on with very well, or alternatively dislike, but for many of our colleagues, they probably fall between the two.

A recent study found that these ‘frenemies’ are actually crucial to our workplace wellbeing.  The research examines the ambivalent relationships that make up the most of our relations with colleagues in a bid to understand how they shape our happiness and productivity.

Keep your frenemies close

Interestingly, it seems that frenemies can actually be more harmful to our health and wellbeing than bona fide enemies.  Things aren’t completely bleak however, as they can also be associated with creativity boosts and productivity surges due to the competitive spark they engender.

“Ambivalent relationships can be harmful for our health, but potentially generative for our work performance,” the authors say. “They help employees expand the scope of information they consider when making decisions, making them more adaptable and open to change.”

I’m sure we can all recall such indifferent relationships at work that manifest themselves in small talk over the coffee machine or a casual hello in the elevator.  Such relationships seldom develop into anything more meaningful, and indeed probably account for the majority of our interactions at work.  As such, they are surprisingly influential.

“Indifferent relationships are potentially the most frequent type of work relationship, yet also the most overlooked, likely because they seem inconsequential or disposable,” the authors say. “However, our work acquaintances serve invaluable functions. They can help introduce us to unique information to perform our jobs or find out about job opportunities; they can be low-risk sounding boards for ideas or for rehearsing the disclosure of secrets; they can be called on in an emergency but not require much daily maintenance; and they help with becoming socially integrated by feeling connected to others.”

All about emotion

Whilst it seems peculiar to think emotions may play a part in rather remote relationships, the authors suggest they are in fact key as we tend to project our emotions subconsciously.  This helps to signal ambivalence (appearing approachable but then starting an argument) or indifference (appearing bored or distracted during a conversation) toward our colleagues.

“People tend to reciprocate in these interactions by either showing more interest and support to protect the relationship or by withdrawing and harming the relationship,” they say. “The emotions we display to our colleagues have downstream implications for how the relationship evolves over time, and determine whether we can effectively work together or remain friends in the future.”

Maybe its time to start taking those ambivalent kind of relationships just a little bit more seriously.


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