Research: Love-Hate Relationships at Work Might Be Good for You

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Workplace relationships are complex. Colleagues compete as well as cooperate with you for bonuses. Friends at work who are trusted confidantes may then gossip about you. Co-workers who encourage you may also disparage you in front of others. You might call these people “frenemies”. But researchers like us label these kinds of connections “ambivalent relationships”.

Ambivalent relationships are characterized by tension and conflict and involve both positive and negative feelings towards the other person. These love-hate relationships are also widespread, comprising close to half of important social network members. Research conducted in families shows that people tend to view their parents, in-laws, and significant others with more ambivalence than their friends. Why? It’s relatively easy to stop calling a friend, but much harder to avoid staying in touch with your mother. When you’re stuck in a relationship, you’re probably more ambivalent about it. This same dynamic — the constant, enforced interactions with colleagues and a lack of exit options ­— make organizations a breeding ground for ambivalent relationships.

Most research about relationships in organizations have focused on either positive, high-quality relationships or on the other end of the spectrum — enemies or negative relationships. And the findings are what you’d expect: Positive relationships have positive outcomes and negative relationships, negative ones. So what about ambivalent relationships? You might think they, like negative relationships, would have mostly downright damaging effects. And that’s what most of the research has shown up to now.

Further Reading: HBR Guide to Office Politics

For instance, in a study conducted in 2003, ambivalent relationship experts Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University and Bert Uchino from the University of Utah, together with a larger research team, asked 102 participants to wear blood pressure monitors for three days. The readings from the monitors were then corroborated by participants’ descriptions of their interactions with various people. They found that blood pressure readings were higher when subjects engaged with their frenemies than when they engaged with either their friends or their enemies. Other research validates these findings: love-hate relationships have been associated with increased cardiovascular reactivity, higher levels of daily blood pressure, and greater cellular aging as well as lowered resistance to stress, poorer physical health, and a decreased sense of well-being.

But we don’t believe that ambivalent relationships are all bad. In fact, in organizational research, the notion of ambivalence is often associated with beneficial outcomes such as creative problem-solving and accurate decision-making. One of us (Naomi) has even recently shown that expressing emotional ambivalence while negotiating can result in more integrative agreements.

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With these more positive findings in mind, we set out to see if ambivalence at work might have positive effects. Could love-hate relationships be good for you and your work? The answer is yes. What we predicted was that with frenemies, you’re more likely to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, in part because you spend more time trying to understand what the relationship means. Also, because these relationships make you feel uncertain about where you stand, you’re more motivated to work harder to establish your position.

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In two studies, a laboratory experiment in which we mimicked ambivalent relationships (as well as positive relationships for comparison) and a survey of consultants, we found that ambivalent relationships were indeed just that—ambivalent: neither all positive nor all negative, but rather both. Participants in our two studies who experienced ambivalent relationships were more likely to engage in perspective-taking as well as motivate themselves to succeed in both the task they were facing as well as in their organizational relationships. But while the overall findings were positive, ambivalent relationships were also associated with more time spent ruminating, and feeling envy and guilt.

So, how do you navigate these relationships at work?

  • Focus on the positive: Having a frenemy is better than having an enemy. No matter how exasperating this relationship is, keep in mind that it still provides emotional benefits that are often hard to come by at work. So focus on these positives. Start by sharing some personal information and building a small degree of trust; even if these relationships don’t ever make it into a “friend” zone, they have some unanticipated benefits.
  • Try to work together on an important project. Frenemies are a source of motivation and working alongside them will make you work harder to prove yourself. Plus the time you spend together will help you understand each other better and perhaps even develop some empathy.
  • Turn your enemies into frenemies. Negative relationships are toxic. Aim to transform your worst relationships, not into friendships ­but into ambivalent ones, which have more benefits in terms of your motivation and personal success. You can do this by getting to know your enemy better and focusing on his or her more positive characteristics.
  • Appreciate your varied social ledger. Remember that it’s not just you who feels ambivalent towards others at work. Stop feeling guilty about these uncomfortable feelings and appreciate that you have a wide range of relationship types at work, as does everybody else.

Despite the benefits, we don’t want all our relationships to be ambivalent. There is much more to be gained by having as many positive relationships as possible — and that’s where your priorities should lie. But navigating relationships at work is complicated, and not only are love-hate relationships unavoidable, but having a few is good for us.

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