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Friend or Foe: Which of Your Co-Workers Wants Your Job?

Friend or Foe: Which of Your Co-Workers Wants Your Job?
Credit: Fotoinfot/Shutterstock

Do you know which of your co-workers genuinely like you and which ones don't? New research finds that figuring out who your workplace friends are is a lot easier than determining which ones might be after your job.

The study, which was recently published in the journal Psychological Science, revealed that most employees aren't very adept at figuring out which colleagues don't have their back.

Hillary Anger Elfenbein, one of the study's authors and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said their research looked at whether workers had a good grasp on what their co-workers thought of them.

"You tend to know who likes you," Elfenbein said in a statement. "But for negative feelings, including competitiveness, people had no clue."

For the study, researchers conducted two separate surveys. They first surveyed salespeople at a car dealership where competition was not only the norm, but encouraged. They also surveyed more than 200 undergraduate students in 56 separate project groups. Both surveys asked participants similar questions about their co-workers, and what they assumed those people thought of them. [See Related Story: Co-Workers Sabotaging Your Career? Here's How to Deal]

When evaluating the responses to questions about competition, researchers found that most people were completely unaware which of their colleagues were working hard to beat them out.

"Some people show their competitiveness, some people you can tell have it out for you, but others have it out for you and act like they're your close friend," Elfenbein said. "Those two effects wash out, and people on average have zero idea about who feels competitively toward them."

Besides the fact that most people tend to act civil and hide their competitive feelings at work, reciprocity is another reason employees have so much trouble deciphering which co-workers don't see them in a positive light, according to the researchers.

Elfenbein said reciprocity is a good thing when co-workers like each other.

"You keep dates, you give gifts, you have shared, positive experiences," she said. "But to get the benefits of competition, such as promotions or perks, you don't need it to be reciprocated. And when you don't get that feeling back, it's hard to gauge who's truly competing against you."

The study's authors said it is important that people understand that their perceptions on what co-workers think of them might not always be accurate.

"Learning that liking is easier to detect than competition has implications for how people interact with one another," the researchers wrote. "People may be blindsided by other people’s attempts to cut them down, unaware of the interpersonal competition that fuels those actions."

While workplace rivalries can be a positive, the key is ensuring the competition is healthy. The study's authors said it is important for managers to make sure employees know how far they can take their competition.

"If you create a climate where there are boundaries you don't cross, you can make space for mutual healthy competition to be rewarded," Elfenbein said.

For employees trying to figure out who their real workplace friends are, the keys are paying attention to what people do, more than what they say and relying on those people they know they can trust to report back on what others might be saying about them behind their backs.

"When people are too polite to say something to your face, you need a good, strong network that will let you know what other people really think," Elfenbein said.

The study was co-authored by Noah Eisenkraft, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Shirli Kopelman, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.