Frenemies at Work

How can a colleague be a pal one day and stab you in the back the next? Here's how to deal with this common workplace peril

A generation ago, the workplace was a lot more formal than it is now. I am old enough, just barely, to remember when people in offices were called Mr. Smith and Miss Jones, when bosses were on a higher plane vis-à-vis their employees than most bosses are now, and when telling a risqué joke at work was considered bad behavior.

I'm not saying I want those days back, I'm just pointing out some of the differences in the post-millennium workplace. These days, most business environments are more frenzied, more casual, and more familiar than they have ever been.

Another change is the abundance of very close, intertwined relationships that bridge people's professional and personal lives. While it certainly wasn't unheard of for people to socialize with colleagues in the past, the sheer amount of time that people spend at work now has left a lot of people with less time and inclination to develop friendships outside of the office.

But the rules are different for these relationships than they are for ones that have nothing to do with work, and you could easily find yourself with a "frenemy": that hybrid who is part friend and part enemy.

Frenemies at the Gate

A frenemy is a person you spend time with, enjoy talking with, and rely on at work—but you can't completely trust. He or she is so much a part of your working day that a relationship that isn't strictly business between you two is not just assumed—it's unavoidable. And, day in and day out, it's not unpleasant.

But at the same time you have been burned by this person, who hasn't demonstrated the unyielding loyalty and support you'd expect—and get—from an out-and-out friend.

Why do certain colleagues morph into frenemies? Some people are congenitally unable to have true friends. They always have an angle and they've got to have the edge. It's better for them if people don't get too comfortable with them.

Fear Factor

Some people are so laden with fear about their political position or their competence that they never miss an opportunity to make a colleague, even one they work with closely, look bad. For your part, you're the loyal teammate who supports and encourages and helps your work buddies as much as you can. But more than once, you've felt the blade in your back.

"How could you do that to me?" you think, but that's the way these people operate. You may be friends when all is smooth sailing, but when the chips are down, your frenemy will make sure you look bad and he looks good.

Keeping a frenemy at a distance to minimize the risk of being stabbed doesn't really work. Face it, part of the reason your relationship developed as it did is because the two of you are too dependent on one another, share too many goals or projects, and spend too much time together to disentangle your professional fortunes. Anyway, it's far better to deal with the interpersonal issue outright than to deny it and try to freeze your frenemy out.

Request a Meeting

You must let your frenemy know that you are well aware that more than once he has thrown you under the bus, and it's not O.K. My advice: Request a sit-down meeting (even if you already work in cubicles side by side) out of the office to discuss your relationship.

"I like working with you," you can say, if it's generally true. "I admire the work you do. I also rely on you. And I feel that on several occasions, when you had an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, you blamed me or sabotaged me instead."

Be specific. Your frenemy may be brought up short by your rebuke—a common frenemy trait is that the back-stabbing isn't personally directed at you; it's just the only kind of team behavior he knows. Be aware that if someone's reputation has to suffer, the frenemy will never take the fall.

Your frenemy, confronted with the facts, will likely react in one of the following ways:

That's the way life is. But you would have done the same thing to me—it's every person for him—or herself. Your reply, "Actually I wouldn't have. I would have handled the situation without overtly criticizing anyone. I would have used the issue as an opportunity to improve our group's process and strengthen the team. There are ways to do that, and I'd love to talk with you more about them." Who, me? I don't know what you're talking about. You're too sensitive.

Stay Off Victims List

Your reply, "I don't feel I'm being sensitive at all. To the extent that I doubt your motivation or your level of buy-in to the projects we work on together, I'll be uncomfortable sharing information with you or helping you succeed, and that won't help either of us or the company. I have no opinions about your relationships with other people on our team, but where you and I are concerned, I need to know that if you have constructive feedback for me, I'll always hear it before anyone else does. Is that a fair agreement?"

Other possible reactions: Your frenemy may minimize the backstabbing, accuse you of "frenemizing" yourself, or try to change the subject. But if you're sure that you're in a frenemy situation, it's appropriate to keep the conversation on target. It doesn't matter a lot whether your frenemy cleans up his or her act in general, but it matters that you erase your name from the list of possible victims.

And calling a frenemy's bluff really does work. Once you have made the point that you won't play friends-today-trashed-tomorrow, your frenemy should ease up. You may even become the first workmate he trusts completely when the heat is on.

Remember, you have an obligation to your workmate also, to have his back as much as you'd like him to have yours. That doesn't mean covering for one another, misleading anyone, or promoting any agenda other than the company's best interests. But it requires honest communication and trust, two things that teams (even teams of two members) can't operate without.

Once you establish yourself as the person your former frenemy can't, and doesn't need to, sabotage, you may learn things about your colleague that help you understand how the frenemy worldview developed. You have more influence on your colleagues than you think. If you can help a smart and capable person get over the fears that inspire frenemy-type behavior, you've accomplished your good deed for the year—at least.

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