A Work Frenemy Can Make You Better at Your Job

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Dwight and Jim from NBC's The Office. Photo: NBC

There is likely someone you work with whom you really enjoy — but also, kind of can’t stand. Social psychologists call this an ambivalent relationship, though the terms you’re probably familiar with are “love-hate relationship” or “frenemy.” Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the research on these types of social connections has so far focused on the negative impact they have on us. But some emerging findings are suggesting the opposite: specifically, that having an office frenemy may make you better at your job. 

Shimul Melwani, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies ambivalent relationships, said it’s something she’s been interested in ever since she started her first job. “There was this person I constantly discussed,” said Melwani, who recently wrote about her research in Harvard Business Review. “I came home and would talk about them all the time: This person did this terrible thing, but they also did this other wonderful thing!”

She was always confused about where she stood with this person. Sometimes, they’d go to lunch together and have a great time, sharing personal stories and asking for each other’s advice on work matters. “And then at the same time, they’d put me down in public, or act really competitively,” she said. Melwani, in short, had herself a work frenemy. But as a researcher, she was curious: Why was she so fixated on this person?

Frenemies are especially grating — even more so than out-and-out enemies — because of the inherent uncertainty in the relationship. At least with someone you actively dislike, who dislikes you right back, you know where you stand. “Our assumption has been that ambivalence is harmful, in part because it’s an inconsistent state, so that’s one of the reasons we’ve perhaps had a bias against it,” said Naomi Rothman of Lehigh University, Melwani’s colleague on her current research. “There’s lots of theories — like cognitive dissonance, for one — that say people don’t like having inconsistencies in their emotions.” Our discomfort with uncertainty is likely the reason why most of the existing research on ambivalent relationships has turned up the negative impact. For example, studies have shown an association between ambivalent relationships and increased levels of stress, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk for heart disease.

The problem is that many people seem to misunderstand what ambivalence really means, as Rothman has discovered during her research — they think it means indifference, but it doesn’t. While indifference indicates a lack of strong emotions, ambivalence means positive and negative feelings that are equally strong. And there appears to be real value in this strange feeling. “This discomfort seems to be a useful trigger for seeing your world anew,” Rothman said. “Maybe this is actually a really good way to reorient our thinking.”

So far, the scientific literature hasn’t fully explored the psychological impact of ambivalent relationships in work contexts. The existing studies on work relationships mostly zero in on the purely positive or purely negative. But think about it: The office is really the perfect breeding ground for the ambivalent relationship. “Just the nature of the work world, it encourages these types of relationships,” Melwani said. “You’re competing with them for resources, but at the same time you need to be cooperative.”

To explore the nature of ambivalent relationships between co-workers, Melwani and Rothman did two experiments, one in a lab and one using survey responses from consultants. In the lab, Melwani and Rothman paired up about 120 undergrads; the team members never met face-to-face, and communicated only via instant messaging. For about half of the students, the researchers manipulated the situation to create the feeling that a friendship was forming by having the students ask and answer a series of questions that revealed increasingly personal information. (This is a tried-and-true friendship-building exercise researchers often use in the lab.)

For the other half of the students, however, the researchers wanted to create ambivalence between the partners. Like the other group, they started off with some getting-to-know you questions about their hobbies and interests. But the questions soon turned competitive, from What’s your GPA so far? to Which one of you has a higher GPA? After that, the students in both groups were asked how they felt about their partners, and the researchers found the manipulations had worked: The people in the friendship condition reported positive feelings toward their partner, while those in the ambivalent condition reported feeling both positively and negatively toward theirs.

Next, Melwani and Rothman told the undergrads they’d be working with their partners to create a promotional blog post for their university’s business school. They were told one of them would be the writer and one would be the editor, but this was a teensy lie; all the students were given the same blog post, written by the researchers themselves, and all the students would act as editors. The researchers had purposely planted a number of errors in the post, and told the students that their partners had only been given a few brief minutes to write it.

As it turned out, those who’d been made to feel ambivalent about their partners ended up catching more errors than those who’d been primed to feel positively toward them. Afterward, the students answered a questionnaire about their experience, and those in the ambivalent condition tended to be more understanding toward their partner, agreeing with statements like I understood why the person made mistakes or I would’ve made mistakes in the same position. The ambivalent students were also more likely than the others to say they’d felt highly motivated during the editing task.

In their second experiment, Melwani and Rothman surveyed 218 people who worked in consulting firms across the country about their ambivalent office relationships. Here, too, frenemies appeared to bring benefits: Employees with frenemies were more likely to say they were highly motivated at work.

The researchers weren’t expecting to find that frenemies tended to understand each other, but, thinking back to her own experience, Melwani gets it. “We spend a lot of time thinking about these people, and so we spend a lot of time thinking about their position,” Melwani said. “You’re constantly putting yourself in their position just to make it easier for you yourself to understand.” The finding that frenemies motivate each other, on the other hand, is more easily understood. “You engage in a lot of social comparisons [with a frenemy] — so that’s very motivating, because you want to perform better than them,” Melwani said. “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.”

Melwani and Rothman’s work hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, but Bert Uchino, a psychologist at the University of Utah and one of the leading experts on ambivalent relationships, says he buys their argument on the upside of ambivalent relationships at work — for the most part. But he’s skeptical that the short-term benefits shown in their lab experiment would translate to frenemies who have a history together. 

Rothman’s research on the concept of ambivalence in general has also found that it makes people more likely to take the perspective of others. Her work has even taken that idea one step further, and found that ambivalence can subsequently lead people to make better decisions. She thinks it’s because seeing things from other people’s point of view allows you to see more sides of an issue, allowing you to fully think it through before you decide on something. So in much the same way that diversity seems to nudge people a bit out of their comfort zone, leading to more critical thinking and better decision-making, frenemies might serve a similar purpose. At the very least, it’s a new way to think about the people you work with who are always driving you nuts.