“Frenemies” Both Help And Harm Each Other At Work

By Emma Young

Think about your relationships with your colleagues… I bet there are at least some who you’d call “frenemies”. Maybe there’s a co-worker whose sense of humour you love, say — but who also irritates you by failing to pull their weight. In fact, the workplace is the ideal breeding ground for relationships that are characterised by simultaneous, strong positive and negative feelings — so-called “ambivalent relationships” (or frenemies) — note the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

It’s surprising, then, how little is known about how frenemies behave with each other, write Shimul Melwani at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Naomi Rothman at Lehigh University. So the pair ran a series of studies to find out.

In the first, groups of 3 -6 students who’d been assigned a joint task were asked 2.5 weeks into the project to rate how positively and/or negatively they felt about each other. About a month later, they all reported on the extent to which they’d received help (support in a discussion, say), or harm (a verbal attack, perhaps), from each other. Unsurprisingly, the students gave more help to team members they liked and enacted more harmful behaviour towards those that they disliked. But the data also showed that frenemies both helped and harmed each other.

In a second study, the researchers used variations of a standard lab technique for developing closeness between two people. While seated in a cubicle by themselves, these participants used instant messaging to communicate with a partner, to share answers to a set of questions. Some followed questions designed to foster a positive relationship — by getting them to discuss their hobbies and interests, for example, and also to share a few things that they liked about their partner. Other pairs followed a “negative” question set (this included a final question that asked them to share a few things that they didn’t like about their partner). A third group followed a frenemy set. For example, after answering the question, “What is one recent accomplishment that you are proud of?” (a question that can enhance closeness and positive feelings between people), these participants had to compare and evaluate each other’s achievements (encouraging more negative feelings).

Next came what the participants believed was a collaborative task. And there were some interesting findings. Those in the ambivalent condition acted more co-operatively than those in the negative group; they claimed less of a shared reward, for example, and made more helpful contributions to a piece of work that they believed had been completed by their partner. However, they also delivered more harmful feedback about their partner to the experimenter, compared with those in the positive group — but delivered less negative feedback directly to their partner than did those in the negative group.

For their final study, the team turned to actual co-workers: they ran an online study of 166 US-based participants who worked in retail. These people reported on their experiences, emotions and motivations in actual positive, negative and ambivalent relationships with colleagues. For example, they reported on occasions in which they had supported these colleagues, or instigated arguments, acted rudely or started rumours about them.

Echoing the results of the second study, these employees were more likely to “covertly” harm frenemies (to spread rumours behind their back say) than people they felt positively about. But they also helped frenemies more than they helped people they didn’t like.

There are implications for workplaces, the researchers conclude. One important one is this: though ambivalent relationships involve high levels of negativity (as well as positivity), “they are much more beneficial compared to negative relationships,” they write. Managers could well struggle to turn negative relationships into positive ones. But if positivity-focused exercises, such as trust-building interactions, could shift relationships characterised by thorough dislike to frenemy status, everyone could benefit. “Even though it is impractical to entirely transform one’s worst relationships into one’s best ones, by infusing some positivity into these relationships, they can become ambivalent, and deliver some benefits at work,” the researchers write.

The push-and-pull of frenemies: When and why ambivalent relationships lead to helping and harming.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest