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Why Frenemies at Work Can Make You Better at Your Job

At my last real office job, there was a woman who drove me crazy. She and I had similar jobs, had been there around the same amount of time, and basically had nothing in common. She would spend the first 30 minutes of work talking about what she heard Ryan Seacrest say to a woman’s cheating husband on the radio. When I brought up that those rose segments on radio shows aren’t real, she got really upset.

From that moment on, we were frenemies. We were nice and cordial, but there was an undercurrent, and I wanted to be better than her at everything.

This video from New York Magazine’s Science of Us says that social scientists call this kind of friendship an ambivalent relationship, and it turns out that it might make you better at your job.

Researchers at Chapel Hill’s Lehigh University paired up a bunch of undergraduates and had them send questions to each other through instant message. All the participants started out asking encouraging questions, but then half the group was told to start asking undermining questions.  Things like, “Which one of us has a better GPA?” A frenemyship was formed!

Then, each student was told to edit an error-filled blog post that they were told was written by the person they had been messaging with earlier, but was actually written by the researchers. Those that had been in the ambivalent relationship conversations did better editing than those who were not. “Even crazier, the ambivalent group also reported feeling more empathetic towards their partners.”

A pure friend or enemy doesn’t irk you quite the same way a frenemy does. You complain about them a lot. “In other words, you’re thinking about how they tick you off, but you’re also thinking about how they tick.” You also want to be better than them, so you work harder.

For the record, I busted my ass at that job trying to beat her. In the end we both got laid off. Oh well.

Bonus info: You can read more about the Lehigh University study on the Harvard Business Review website.