We’ve all run into those individuals in our lives who bring up mixed feelings. On the one hand they can be supportive, even complimentary of us, and on the other hand they have been unexpectedly aggressive or critical. They are inconsistent, and that inconsistency may present itself in a number of ways (not just surprising you in conversation). As an example, they say nice things about/to you but their smile doesn’t reach their eyes or their tone of voice doesn’t fully support the positive message. They are incongruent. You just never know what to expect. These are our “frenemies”, to use the colloquial term (otherwise known as ambivalent relationships). Whatever you call them, they are exhausting (in contrast to the other three types of relationships we have at work; friends/allies, opponents and those we don’t know).
Many of us are torn when ambivalent relationships show up in our lives; not having enough “bad” things in play to give up on the opportunity that things will get better, but not having enough positive things happening either to help support a deeper (or healthier) relationship. For many people this causes confusion, guilt, annoyance or other strong feelings, especially in a working environment where we all do our best to be as constructive and positive with others as possible (and where you have little choice about whom you work with or for). Flashing back to high school? One thing we learned there was frenemies are a lot of work, and they never reliably get to a place where you could call them friend. There is a reason for this.
According to Adam Grant in his book Originals (page 131), psychologist Bert Uchino discovered that ambivalent relationships are unhealthier than negative relationships because of the amount of stress they generate. And yet we are more inclined to walk away from strictly negative relationships and try to salvage ambivalent ones. Why? It has something to do with our self-esteem. Negative relationships at work are easier for us to let go of with our dignity intact; we see no purpose in making the relationship better, and since there are no synergies involved we bear little risk in walking away from the relationship. No such luck with our ambivalent relationships; most people would take a sincere hit to their self-esteem if a frenemy deteriorated into a consistent opponent. Whether we like it or not, we are often invested in making these types of relationships work. Perhaps for good reason, these relationships may exist with a co-worker, a manger or a subject-matter-expert (SME) we need to rely on in our work…all circumstances where we are expected to figure it out and keep the work (if not the relationship) flowing in a positive direction. So what to do with these ambivalent relationships?
The first thing to remember is you only control your thoughts and actions, which means you will need to do some work with yourself to keep this relationship from messing with your well being. This other individual isn’t suddenly “going to get it”, change or reliably become your biggest fan. If it hasn’t happened yet, it isn’t going to, which means you need to wade into the muck of the here and now. Start by noticing any passive aggressive or negative behaviours that you may be contributing (hey, we are all imperfectly human, we’ve all done this). While you may not be saying disparaging things about the individual you might be vocally agreeing with others who do (it’s likely you are not the only person struggling with the ambivalence of this relationship). Check in to see what narratives you have attached to this person, likely they are not flattering…or objective. Step one is to stop making it harder to come to grips with what is needed (a constructive working relationship) and become neutral in your approach and actions with respect to this person.
Step two is to get more objective about the individual. This does not mean you have to become “besties”; no one can make that happen when the conditions do not exist to support it. It does mean you put effort into looking at this person in a different light. Look at them in terms of what they want for the work, keeping in mind no one gets out of bed in the morning to screw-up or deliberately make life harder for others. What is more likely is that the two of you have a style difference. This individual may have a more direct way of communicating, or they may be delivering a deeper sense of urgency (we tend to forget the niceties when we are under the gun at work). It’s important to remember that they are a son, daughter, spouse, parent, caregiver and loved one, just as you are, and they deserve to be viewed as having value and worth regardless of a style difference. Next, look for common ground; there are things you have both agreed on in the past, why? Was it because you are both dedicated to securing best possible outcome in your work? Did you both share an opinion or approach? While not enough to sustain a consistently positive relationship, it is important to remember that agreement is possible and understand what sources of agreement exist. In other words, you don’t have to like this person, but you should check in to see what it is about their work you respect.
Being mindful of what you can respect about someone whom you may not fully trust can help you to manage your emotions when things tip into negative territory. It won’t change the unpredictability but it will mean you are able to stay out of the drama of it, to feel calm and able to like yourself while in the midst of dealing with an opposing view from someone who could have gone either way. Staying calm means the relationship won’t deteriorate further and leaves you more opportunity (after the drama has passed) to see other options, clear the air, re-assert your views/concerns or try to better understand what problems exist and how they can be overcome. When you make it about the work, rather than how you feel about this person, your well being and self esteem stay in tact and you have more energy to enjoy the rest of your day.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.