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Why you should be careful about trusting ‘friends’ at work

Playful businessman aiming paper airplane at serious co-worker
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It turns out the relationships you have with your co-workers may be a little more complicated than you first thought.

A new study by a Rutgers professor explores ambivalent and indifferent workplace relationships finds the people at work you consider to be your friends can sometimes also turn out to be your enemies.

For that reason, you might want to consider them your “frenemies.”

“It’s thinking about the possibility that liking someone and disliking someone could happen in the same relationship, that these two emotions or feelings could co-exist,” said Jessica Methot, a professor of human resource management in the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations.

She said this dynamic exists in our family lives, with sibling rivalries, or in how we thikn of our in-laws.

“We really do love them and we care about them and we want happiness for them, but there’s also this kind of tension, where we might feel competitive with them, or stressed by the things they do,” she said. “The notion of frenemies is really this combination of friends and enemies and the fact that they can co-exist.”

She said when you first get to know someone at work, you might experience the “honeymoon effect” early on, where superficial things are discussed and you see each other in a mostly positive light — but when you get to know a person and develop a more holistic sense of that person, you learn both the positive and negative things.

“We could think about frenemies as being a more realistic perception of a relationship,” she said.

As an example, the professor said, if you go up for a promotion with a co-worker who is considered a friend, your sense about that person can easily change.

“Now you’re feeling both pride and happiness toward that person, but also jealousy,” she said.

Discovering your friend at work is really your frenemy can be shocking to many.

“This is someone who we trust and who we respect and who we think is supportive of us, and then we find out them may have been whispering things or gossiping with other people, say about our work or our abilities,” Methot said.

The upshot is, friendships at work a bit different than friendship outside of the office.

“These are people you think you can trust, and so you disclose things to them and you’re vulnerable to them, but now they now personal information about you that they can potentially use against you,” she said.

“You are competitive with these people. First and foremost these are your co-workers, and so even if they are your friends, there’s always this underlying almost hidden layer of instrumentality, this function of using this person for gain,” Methot said.

So what does this mean when it comes to your work friends?

She suggested it’s important to remember the contradictions in liking someone as a friend while knowing them in a professional setting.

“Trying to merge them or blur them in the same relationship definitely creates complexities. It complicates the relationship in a way that makes people question whether these individuals who they consider to be their friends at work are actually truly friends,” she said.

The professor added it’s not productive to look at everyone at work as having some kind of an ulterior motive, but we have to be careful about how much personal information we disclose at work.

“Sadly, people might not even be aware that this could be the case until something happens,” she said.

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You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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