Frenemies At Work Make You Better At Your Job, Suggests New Research, So That Jerk In Accounting Is Serving A Purpose

So you’d like to be better at your job? Try finding a frenemy, suggests a new research, because love-hate relationships at work may increase your productivity. Ambivalence, it would seem, presents some unlikely benefits when applied to a coworker with whom you have regular correspondence but overall find annoying as hell. Dave in accounting? You know the one. That chatty Cathy always wisecrackin’ jokes with the delivery of a bored librarian may be your key to success. As both New York Magazine’s The Science of Us blog and the Harvard Business Review point out, love-hate relationships result in higher blood pressure, increased stress, and of course a general pain in your ass. What’s that old saying about getting strength from whatever doesn’t kill you?

To be clear, this research applies explicitly to ambivalent relationships, not hateful or indifferent ones. The research discussed by both The Science of Us and HBR deconstruct correspondence with people for whom you harbor both positive and negative feelings. Citing prior research as their springboard, HBR co-authors Shimul Melwani and Naomi Rothman simulated ambivalent relationships to test their hypothesis that these attitudes may be beneficial in the workplace. In two lab studies, they found that these feelings actually facilitated greater productivity and a perceived level of competition.

“What we predicted was that with frenemies, you’re more likely to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, in part because you spend more time trying to understand what the relationship means,” writes Melwani. “Also, because these relationships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, you’re more motivated to work harder to establish your position.” The upside, they found, is that study participants were also more likely to engage in “perspective-taking” behaviors, and were more likely to be empathetic and understanding about mistakes. The downside, however, is that you’re more likely to spend time obsessing with feelings of envy or guilt.

So why is this relationship so grating? Coworkers, points out HBR, are permanent fixtures to your peripheral annoyance. Much like your nagging mother-in-law, we’re stuck with them. “When you’re stuck in a relationship, you’re probably more ambivalent about it,” writes HBR’s Melwani. “This same dynamic — the constant, enforced interactions with colleagues and a lack of exit options ­— make organizations a breeding ground for ambivalent relationships.”

Melissa Dahl over at the Science of Us points out that the research has yet to be peer-reviewed, but those of us (all of us) who’ve had an out-of-office frenemy will surely agree that the nature of these relationships foster some, er, friendly competition.

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