You Probably Don’t Know Who Your Work Rivals Are

Photo: Susie Adams/Getty Images

In most cases, it’s pretty easy to know who your work friends are: the people you goof off with on Slack, or vent to when a colleague does something annoying, or naturally gravitate toward during the office happy hours.

There’s no easy strategy, though, for figuring out who your rivals are — the ones competing against you for the boss’s attention, or the leadership slot in that cool new project, or even a higher spot in the office social hierarchy. And according to a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science and highlighted by the Association for Psychological Science blog, we’re a lot better at picking out the people that like us than the ones trying to take us down.

The study had two parts. In the first, a group of 14 car salespeople who worked on commission — chosen because their profession naturally fostered competitiveness between co-workers — filled out a survey about how much they liked each of their 13 co-workers, how much of a rivalry they felt with each one, and how they imagined the others in the group would answer the same questions about them. In the second part of the study, the study authors gave a similar survey to a group of 263 college students who had spent the past few months working on group projects together (each member of the group would get the same project grade).

In each case, people were fairly accurate at knowing who felt friendly toward them, but generally way off the mark when identifying the people that considered them rivals: “You can accurately estimate how much your colleagues like you, but are unlikely to know how much those same colleagues compete against you,” the authors wrote. The reason, they argued, is that positive feelings, unlike rivalry, tend to foster reciprocity. As the APS blog explained:

We like people who like us back. We also tend to project our own feelings onto others, assuming that the people we like probably also like us back. Competition, in contrast, originates in comparison: We tend to compete against people who are a little bit better than we are.

Because competition usually takes place between people on different levels, in other words, it’s hard for the person who’s higher up to see the striving of the one below them. “People may be blindsided by other people’s attempts to cut them down, unaware of the interpersonal competition that fuels those actions,” the researchers wrote. On the bright side, though, if you’re getting the vibe that your new co-worker wants to be friends, you’re probably right.

You Probably Don’t Know Who Your Work Rivals Are